The high winds, fossil fuel potential, and rich marine life associated with the Southern Ocean spanning the coast from Warrnambool to South Australia make it a significant natural site — and the energy sector has taken a liking to it. 

Key points:

  • Community groups along Victoria’s south-west coast are calling to ban “cowboy” seismic surveying permits
  • The offshore regulator is currently assessing the largest marine seismic survey proposal on record
  • The proposed area overlaps marine parks, whale sanctuaries, and Gunditjmara songlines

An offshore wind zone is proposed at Portland and five oil and gas projects are currently proposed or approved for the Otway Basin.

Now community groups are fighting to ban a specific kind of marine seismic exploration permit called a special prospecting authority, or SPA, to get “cowboy operators” out of the area.

To Gunditjmara woman and founder of activist group the Southern Ocean Protection Embassy Collective, Yaraan Couzens Bundle, the Southern Ocean is special for a different reason.

It’s home to her ancestral songlines, a kind of oral map passed down through generations, and her totem the koontabool, or southern right whale, and she wants to protect them from seismic testing.

Yaraan Couzens Bundle founded the Southern Ocean Protection Embassy Collective to protest industrialisation in Southern Sea Country.(ABC South West Vic: Jean Bell)

Marine seismic testing involves firing air guns at the sea bed, penetrating layers of the ocean floor with soundwaves up to 250 decibels. The results are then analysed to identify what lies beneath.

Some research shows seismic surveys do impact the behaviour and health of ocean life, sometimes causing death, however, other researchers dispute these claims, saying the reality is more complicated

Ms Couzens Bundle is hoping to see a ban on seismic permit applications (SPAs) and has raised concerns about their impact on ocean habitats, marine life, and cultural practices. 

“Our cultural responsibilities call us to defend our sacred country and our sacred songlines,” Ms Couzens Bundle says.

“The whole length of Gunditjmara sea country is earmarked for development, there’s not very many gaps in between the different parts they want to put near gas wells.

“Our songs are about creation … the seismic blasting is a song of death.”

The collective hosted a Dreaming Ceremony to kick off a month-long series of community protests against seismic exploration. (ABC South West Vic: Olivia Sanders)

What is a special prospecting authority permit?

SPAs allow companies the right to explore sections of the ocean using seismic testing, also called seismic blasting, however no drilling can take place under an SPA so applications aren’t subject to the same checks and balances as other exploration titles.

The federal resources minister has discretion to approve SPA applications and companies do not need to prove they have the financial capability and relevant experience to carry out a proposal.

Applications are assessed in isolation, with no legal requirement to consider past breaches or criminal activity.

A Southern Right Whale and her calf spotted in Portland along Victoria’s southwest coast.(Credit: Bob McPherson)

Now the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) is petitioning Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King to abolish SPAs.

“It’s a cowboy permit for cowboy operators, ” AMCS offshore oil and gas campaigner Louise Morris says.

Ms Morris says the petition “is really about getting to the systemic issues that allow companies to go off and seismic blast with these short, fast, dirty permits”.

While banning SPAs won’t stop all marine seismic testing, Ms Morris says the permit reform would “get rid of the worst of the worst operators”.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Federal Resources Minister Madeline King says seismic tests have been safely occurring since the 1960s. 

“The government understands there is concern in the community in relation to seismic surveys and emphasises that Australia’s independent expert regulator NOPSEMA (National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority) relies on the science when regulating seismic surveys,” the statement reads.

“Any company that wishes to undertake seismic surveys in Australia’s offshore areas must go through an extensive and rigorous approvals process, including consultation with local communities.”

One of the SPA applications pending approval for work in the Otway Basin covers more than 45,000 square kilometres of ocean, overlapping marine parks and “biologically important areas” for pygmy whales and southern right whales.

Otway Basin 3D Multi-client Marine Seismic Survey proposal area.(Supplied: TGS-NOPEC Geophysical Company)

It’s a joint venture by TGS and SLB (formerly Schlumberger), the latter of which is the world’s biggest oil drilling company.

The offshore regulator is currently investigating Schlumberger’s 2020 Otway Basin 2DMC Marine Seismic Survey for alleged breaches.

An adult southern right whale and its calf frolic off Victoria’s south-west coast in August 2017.(Supplied: Chris Farrell)

‘Concerns’ over seismic surveys

Environmental anthropologist and PhD researcher Zoe Brittain says seismic testing has a “concerning” impact on marine life.

“[It’s] incredibly loud, and goes every 10 seconds, every day for often for months on end,” Ms Brittain says.

“This is a whale nursery area, we know whales are heavily impacted by noise pollution.

“You don’t necessarily need studies to show that will impact whales if you have a good understanding of whale’s biology and their outside behaviour.”

Ms Brittain also points to the impact on smaller organisms that make up the foundation of the food chain, like zooplankton.

A 2017 study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution showed zooplankton abundance decreased more than 60 per cent one hour after air gun exposure, up to 1.2 kilometres from the source.

Ms Brittain says these studies can also be applied to other tiny organisms floating in the water column, like seaweed.

“On the south-west coast there are more seaweed diversity and abundance than anywhere else in the world … the lack of research is what’s concerning” Ms Brittain says. 

The south-west Victorian coast has the highest number of seaweed species endemic to it in the world.(Supplied: Jess Malcolm)

Fishers voice concerns

Commercial fishers have also voiced concern about the potential for cumulative seismic surveys to reduce catch and impact their livelihoods.

TGS have compensation protocols for lost catch caused by acoustic emissions, all considered on a case-by-case basis. 

Ms Brittain calls this type of compensation “a real sort of city slicker answer”.

“It shows no understanding or concept of the importance of someone’s livelihood to them,” she says.

In response to questions about the research used to inform the Otway Basin 3D MC MSS proposal, traditional owner consultation and income loss protocols, TGS provided the following statement: 

“Prior to conducting any seismic activity, TGS obtains all necessary permits, including any related environmental assessments and analysis. Further, we conduct any seismic survey in accordance with applicable law and such permits.”

Ms Morris says the impact of seismic exploration on the ocean food chain has “so many follow-on effects”.

“If you blow up the krill, you’re taking out the food source for ocean life such as fish, tuna, all the way up to whales who also eat krill,” Ms Morris says.

And Ms Couzens Bundle says the tourism industry also relies on a “healthy oceanic habitat” to ensure whales return each season.

“It’s all interconnected … from the smallest creature in the ocean to the largest creature,” she says.

“If these foundational species die off then that’s a major trigger for the rest of the food chain and that includes humans.”