Seismic survey chronicles

August 15, 2007

For us, it began with an invitation for PROCESS-Bohol to attend a meeting early morning of June 8, 2007, a Friday, at the Session Hall of the Sangguniang Panlungsod at the Tagbilaran City Hall.
A seismic survey, we were informed, was scheduled to be conducted in the Cebu-Bohol Strait starting June 18 up until about a month later. The proponents of the survey were the Department of Energy (DOE) and NorAsian Energy Ltd., an Australian oil exploration firm. A representative from the provincial office of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources was also present at the meeting, since the proposed survey was a project of the national government.

Various people’s organizations of the fisherfolk of Tagbilaran City, as well as NGO representatives and businessmen were also in attendance at the meeting. For the participants, it was not clear if the meeting was a consultation or whether the proponents were just informing us about the project with no consideration to be given for any concerns raised. Thus, a question was raised by one of the fisherfolk in attendance, “Is this a consultation or an information dissemination?”

The proponents said that it was only an information dissemination and that they were going to proceed with the project even if it would face opposition from the people.

Questions raised on the possible harmful effects of the seismic survey, especially on possible fish kill, death of fish fry during the season, and the other physical effects of the survey on fish, marine mammals, and other marine life were dismissed as being minimal.

Meetings were held on June 8 and 9 in Tagbilaran, Dauis, Panglao, Loon, and Maribojoc, during which the NorAsian, DOE, and BFAR inform us that the seismic survey will consist of an array of airguns submerged some five (5) meters underwater, directed at an angle towards the seabed, and blasting air pressure every ten seconds at underwater decibel levels of from 200-220 decibels at the source. Once the pressure waves reach and penetrate the seabed and rebound towards the surface, the hydrophones along two five-kilometer long cable streamers trailing the seismic survey vessel will detect the returning seismic waves to make a readout of the area. The survey will be on a 24-hour non-stop operation from the day it is scheduled to begin (June 18) until its completion about a month later.

During the “consultation” in Tagbilaran, we asked them whether such high decibel levels would kill fish. The representative from BFAR said that there would be some fish killed but that these would only be a small number. We also asked them that since a number of mature fish would certainly die from it and the period from June until the Habagat being a period of spawning for several fish, would such decibel levels not kill fish fry within the range of the seismic blasts, especially those in close proximity to the vessel. They insisted that there would only be a minimal number of fish and fish fry that would perish and that this would not affect recruitment in fish populations in the Cebu-Bohol Strait.

A representative from the tourism sector asked what are the effects of seismic blasts on marine mammals, on which the dolphin and whale watching ventures depend. They answered that there will be warning seismic blasts at 180 dB and said that this would be sufficient to drive away marine mammals away from the seismic survey area. They add that 180 dB is within the tolerance levels of marine mammals, however, they did not elaborate on whether such levels would cause effects other than physical harm or if such tolerance is true with all marine mammals.

They repeated the same statements during a “consultation” that they held in Maribojoc, further stressing that they have compensation programs in place for registered payao (a fish aggregating device) owners. In that meeting, the fisherfolk of Maribojoc were quite vocal about their concerns. Among the questions raised was whether there was also a compensation package for the fisherfolk who would not be allowed to go to sea because of the seismic survey. Again, the concerns about fish kill and adverse effects of the survey were raised. Again, these were dismissed as minimal by the proponents.

The project proponents, perhaps not expecting the local fisherfolk to be articulate about the issues, made accusations that were quoted in news articles about the survey. They said that the fishermen were mostly agreeable to the project and accused NGOs, including BANGON and PROCESS, of being anti-development and of stoking the fire of protests by “misinforming” the community about negative effects of seismic surveys.

In a statement released by the Bohol Alliance of Non-Government Organizations (BANGON) on June 7, 2007 after it was informed about the survey, the following were raised as the main points at issue: public consultation, environmental protection and rehabilitation, just compensation of the people who would be displaced, and equitable distribution of revenues.
After a series of actions organized by the Diocese of Tagbilaran, NGOs, and people’s organizations (POs), including an early morning “visit” at the governor’s residence last June 13, 2007, Gov. Aumentado talked with officials of the DOE and NorAsian. Thereafter, it was agreed that the seismic survey would be deferred until things are arranged by a technical working group (TWG) on the seismic survey. With this assurance, the NGOs and POs consented to the formation of a TWG.

With this concession, the members of the TWG agreed that a marine life and biodiversity assessment, consisting of fish visual census, point-intercept on benthic lifeforms, and observation of marine mammals, should first be done to establish baseline data on which such issues as the specific environmental damage caused by the seismic survey and just compensation may be established.

During the TWG meetings, NorAsian, through its CEO, and the DOE, through Asst. Secretary Arturo Delfin, clarified that only the conduct of the seismic survey in the Bohol side was deferred but that the survey would continue as scheduled (June 18) in the Cebu side, beginning in the municipal waters of Argao.

Atty. Raul Barbarona, president of BANGON, noted that the assessment done would not be reflective of the values prior to the seismic survey since the fish and marine mammals in the Bohol side would already have been affected by the conduct of the seismic survey in the Cebu side. He added that there had already been reports of greatly reduced fish catch and strandings of dolphins and porpoises.

The assessment began on June 26, 2007, a Tuesday, in the seas of Cabilao Island. The assessment was only done in four marine protected areas, two sanctuaries in Cabilao, Loon and two others in Doljo, Panglao. Later that week, NorAsian and the DOE sent tugboats to clear the seas off Cabilao of payaos. Reportedly, they also set up payment schemes for the payao owners. However, there had been nothing yet for the fisherfolks. Nothing that they could reasonably agree to.

Meanwhile, a petition for an injunction against the project was filed on the 22nd of June. We are among the 30+ petitioners, headed by Tagbilaran City Mayor Dan Lim. The first of the hearings were scheduled on June 25, 26, and 27. Hearings were scheduled on July 2, 3, and 4 for the respondents to make their presentations.

At the hearing on June 27, a Cabilao fisherman gave his testimony that the previous week he had gone spearfishing while the seismic survey was conducted in the seas off Sibonga, Cebu, more than ten kilometers away, and that upon diving he heard the underwater explosions, which at a depth of three fathoms were distinct and at which he began to feel vibrations in his abdomen and upper torso. At a depth of five fathoms the explosions were louder and the vibrations of his abdomen and upper torso grew stronger and at that moment he decided to surface. Since that incident he only went spearfishing on the other side of Cabilao Island, away from where the explosions came.

Dr. Angel Alcala of Silliman University, a former DENR Secretary, also emailed Atty. Barbarona saying that there’s no basis for the DOE and NorAsian to say that the environmental effect of the seismic survey is minimal.