Summary of the key features for the 2013 Code of Conduct for Minimising Acoustic Disturbance to Marine Mammals from Seismic Survey Operations


The Guidelines for Minimising Acoustic Disturbance to Marine Mammals from Seismic Survey Operations and its supplementary reference document were originally established by DOC in 2006 in conjunction with the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand (PEPANZ).

Since 2010 the Department has been working with stakeholders to review the guidelines and has now implemented the 2013 Code of Conduct for Minimising Acoustic Disturbance to Marine Mammals from Seismic Survey Operations (the Code), in addition to a revised reference document that provides context and assists with interpretation.

While often associated with oil and gas exploration, seismic surveys are also undertaken for the purposes of scientific research as well as seabed minerals prospecting. Stakeholders that were involved in the review process included representatives from the scientific community, government agencies, industry, professional observers and environmental groups – both from within New Zealand and internationally.

There is a high level of agreement across the stakeholder group for the general direction taken, with feedback indicating that the final outcome is the most comprehensive framework available for protecting marine mammals from the potential impacts of seismic survey operations. The Code has been endorsed as oil and gas industry best practice in New Zealand by PEPANZ.

Objectives of the Code

The primary objectives of the Code are to:

  • minimise disturbance to marine mammals from seismic survey activities;
  • minimise noise in the marine environment arising from seismic survey activities;
  • contribute to the body of scientific knowledge on the physical and behavioural impacts of seismic surveys on marine mammals through improved, standardised observation and reporting;
  • provide for the conduct of seismic surveys in New Zealand continental waters in an environmentally responsible and sustainable manner; and,
  • build effective working relationships between government, industry and research stakeholders.

The Code came into effect on 29 November 2013. The Code is incorporated by reference in the EEZ permitted activities regulations for seismic surveying.

Changes to the 2006 Code

A number of significant changes have been implemented to build on past guidance, most notably:

  • Recognition of three levels of surveys depending on scale and potential effects (Level 1 being highest), determined according to the notified operational capacity of the acoustic source array;
  • Specific mitigation measures for Level 1 & 2 surveys (Level 3 being exempt due to negligible potential impacts) for marine mammal groups according to sensitivity, with three defined ‘mitigation zones’ for each level where acoustic sources either cannot be activated or must be shut down;
  • Increased focus on notifications of surveys to provide for pre-survey planning engagement with departmental officials;
  • Requirements for Marine Mammal Impact Assessments (MMIA) to be submitted to the Director-General;
  • Sound transmission loss modelling 1 required as part of the MMIA for operations in Areas of Ecological Importance (AEI – which includes Marine Mammal Sanctuaries), with scope for additional mitigation measures as specified by the Director-General;
  • Requirement for 2 qualified & independent Marine Mammal Observers (MMO), and 2 qualified & independent Passive Acoustic Monitoring 2 (PAM) operators, on all Level 1 surveys;
  • Requirement for 2 qualified MMO on all Level 2 surveys;
  • Requirements for operating in poor sighting conditions or at night, or in new areas within the survey;
  • Provisions for marine mammal observations at all times while the acoustic source is in operation;
  • Limitation of individual observer effort to 12 hours in any 24 hour period;
  • Development of observer training, performance and reporting standards;
  • Expanded recording and reporting requirements, including data on all marine mammal observations regardless of location;
  • Recommendation to consider impacts on other marine species and habitats at the planning stage, and to record observations where possible; and,
  • Prohibition on the use of explosives as acoustic sources
  • Web-based GIS maps identifying AEI for NZ marine mammal species

There is also a strong focus on industry responsibility for co-ordination of research opportunities during the three year duration of the Code, in order to address specific areas of scientific uncertainty about effects on New Zealand species and habitats, ahead of any regulations that may be developed.

1 Sound transmission loss modelling is a process through which the potential sound levels generated by specific acoustic source configurations can be modelled and predicted over the range of physical environmental conditions expected during the survey.

2 Passive Acoustic Monitoring is a technological development involving the use of underwater audio receiving equipment that can detect vocalising whales and dolphins. When properly designed, calibrated and deployed, a skilled operator can estimate direction and distance in addition to identifying many species. Minimum PAM equipment specifications and performance parameters have been clearly established in the Code.

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