Monk seals are the most endangered marine mammal species in Europe. Its total population size is estimated to be less than 300 in the Eastern Mediterranean and only around 450 animals are remaining in the Mediterranean as a whole. Now a US-based venture plans to use seismic airguns right in the habitat of these critically endangered seals off the island of Santorini to examine the sea floor. A noise attack that may have devastating consequences for marine animals.

Plans include sending explosive noise of up to 240 dB from a seismic vessel into the sea floor around Santorini at intervals of 10 to 15 seconds for a duration of 384 hours across 30 days. The sound waves are penetrating several hundred metres into the earth crust. The echoes are then recorded by 93 receivers and analysed. OceanCare urgently warns about potentially dramatic consequences for marine life and considers the project run by US-based Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to be in clear breach of effective provisions for species protection.

In the past, the Greek authorities readily approved seismic tests for resource exploration without imposing any significant conditions. Underwater noise caused by NATO manoeuvres has also been accepted without mitigation measures. This resulted in a number of strandings of deep-diving sperm and beaked whales which are particularly susceptible to noise (see graphic). Intensive sound can physically harm or even kill the animals, or drive them away from their habitats.

Marine conservationists place their hope to stop the project on the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, a piece of federal legislation that US companies have to fully comply with in all parts of the world. Just last week the US navy committed itself to refrain from intensive noise activities in certain sensitive whale habitats. “A beaked whale in the Mediterranean Sea is just as susceptible to noise as its conspecifics in the Pacific Ocean. And seismic noise is similarly dangerous as military sonar”, states Sigrid Lüber, president of OceanCare. She also points to the special conservation status whale species and monk seals have within international conventions, such as the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Mediterranean Sea. The projected survey site has also been declared an Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Area by the CBD.

“There have been years of intensive efforts to save the monk seals from extinction in the Aegean Sea. Even a Marine Protected Area has been established to protect the few remaining animals. And now the seals should have their ear drums blasted out? The risk is too high, especially when bearing in mind that the monk seals fleeing from the noise would have to leave their young ones behind, which would have little chance to survive without their mothers”, warns Lüber and calls on the US authorities to clearly reject the proposal.

Nicolas Entrup, campaigner for the conservation NGOs OceanCare and NRDC, also sees a duty of European institutions: “It is very unlikely that an environmental impact assessment would approve such a project. But what to do, when the Greek authorities don’t even demand an environmental impact assessment?”

Until early October 2015 there is a public consultation underway by US authorities on the geophysical survey proposed by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. OceanCare will comment on the project and invites the public to send comments, too.