Passengers on a dolphin tour boat watch the mammals play in the water. Business owners worry seismic testing could disrupt dolphins and fish, harming their businesses.
Passengers on a dolphin tour boat watch the mammals play in the water. Business owners worry seismic testing could disrupt dolphins and fish, harming their businesses.

UPDATE April 3: Since this story aired, Rep. Buddy Carter has asked that Georgia be excluded from offshore energy plans, citing the opposition of state and local leaders.


The Trump administration is considering opening waters off part of the Atlantic coast, including Georgia, to offshore oil and gas drilling. Any drilling is a ways off. But the search for oil could start this month. Many worry that simply looking for oil could devastate the Georgia coast. Environmental groups and coastal states are suing to block seismic testing for oil and gas in the Atlantic.


One way to look for oil or gas is with loud blasts of sound.


Seismic airguns send bursts of sound to the ocean floor, then it bounces back up like a dolphin’s sonar to help create a picture of what’s below.


The recorded blast in GPB's story came from Ocean Conservation Research, which studies noise pollution in the sea and how it affects the animals that live there.


“Many marine animals depend on sound for survival,” said Diane Hoskins of Oceana, an environmental group. “Everything from feeding, mating, communicating, and avoiding predators. So disrupting these functions that are necessary for survival could risk serious injury, or even death.”


Oceana and a coalition of other groups, including Georgia-based One Hundred Miles, are suing to stop seismic testing from happening in the Atlantic.


Environmentalists aren’t the only ones opposing it. Coastal states have joined the suit, and local governments have passed resolutions against the testing. Even Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said he opposes seismic testing here.


And businesses are joining the fight as well. That’s because in coastal Georgia, the ocean is big business.


Dolphin tours run daily, promising a glimpse of the playful mammals to honeymooning couples and families with young kids. There are also beaches, waterfront dining, inshore and offshore fishing and “absolutely anything you can think of that’s fun and safe on the water,” according to Captain Elizabeth Johnson, who runs Tybee Island Charters with her husband.


Oceana estimates these industries on the coast support more than 23,000 jobs. But some business owners like Johnson are worried.


“What fish is gonna be around when it’s being blasted out of the water with sound that sounds like dynamite every 15 seconds?" she said. "There’s not going to be any fishing.”


She and other testing opponents are concerned, too, about the whole ecosystem off the coast, from the tiny zooplankton that bigger animals eat to the enormous and critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, which relies on sound to communicate.


In its literature on seismic testing, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management acknowledges that “the impacts to marine life are challenging to predict” and that it’s possible animals have been injured by testing. The agency says there is no documented case of a marine mammal being killed by an air gun.


And, as U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter said, there are rules protecting animals.


“They have observers on the ships to see if they see any marine life, they have to discontinue it,” he said.


Opponents said the sound can travel much farther than you can see from the deck of a boat. The lawsuit contends federal regulators underestimated the possible impacts of seismic testing and violated federal laws protecting marine mammals, endangered species and the environment.


Carter, who represents the Georgia coast, argued it would be “irresponsible not to at least know” whether there’s oil offshore.


But charter captain Elizabeth Johnson said finding out isn’t worth the risk.


“Why would we give up this coast that’s the most unique coast for something that we know, scientifically know, is going damage our animals?” she said.


Regulators could issue seismic testing permits starting Friday.