Seismic surveys by Shell in whale breeding grounds halted by South African court

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A humpback whale off the coast of South Africa. Shell’s seismic blasts occur every five seconds, for months at a time, and are louder than a space shuttle launch, according to Greenpeace (Getty)
A humpback whale off the coast of South Africa. Shell’s seismic blasts occur every five seconds, for months at a time, and are louder than a space shuttle launch, according to Greenpeace (Getty)

A court in South Africa has halted oil giant Shell’s exploratory offshore seismic surveys in the latest ruling in a case brought by campaigners arguing the activity causes "irreparable harm" to the marine environment.

The new ruling forms part of a broader legal case contending that Shell did not have the necessary environmental approvals to continue with their surveys.

The decision comes after a different South African high court gave its approval on 3 December for Shell to begin conducting the surveys in waters off South Africa’s eastern coast.

Each of the seismic shockwaves "is louder than a space shuttle launch, and local whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles will be subjected to them every 10 seconds, for five months, in whale mating season", Greenpeace said earlier this month.

Shell said it has suspended its activity, pending a final ruling.

"We respect the court’s decision and have paused the survey while we review the judgement," a Shell spokesperson told Reuters.

The case was brought by local campaigners and groups and was described as a "last gasp" effort to halt the activity.

Their concerns echoed both local and international experts in the fields of behavioural and acoustic ecology of marine animals, marine scientists, ichthyologists and fisheries consultants, who provided expert analysis for previous legal challenges to the seismic surveys.

The scientists concluded that seismic surveys do cause harm to both species and the ecology, and that significant direct harm to individual animals and to populations of endangered species is the most likely scenario in this case.

High Court Judge Gerald Bloem made the ruling against Shell, saying the approvals for the seismic surveys had been "awarded on the basis of a substantially flawed consultation process".

"Shell must stop pending the resolution of our application for a final interdict, which we are equally confident of," said Johan Lorenzen, one of the lawyers representing fishing communities along the east coast.

The Wild Coast, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, stretches from East London in the south, to the province of KwaZulu-Natal in the north.

The area is known as a wilderness rich in biodiversity, and campaigners warned the seismic activity would do "irreparable harm" to species including whales, dolphins and seals.

Of specific concern to them is the impact on threatened humpback whales, whose calves are particularly vulnerable during migration, and the likely deaths of critically endangered leatherback turtles and endangered loggerhead turtles.

A Greenpeace spokesperson said: “Each shockwave is louder than a space shuttle launch, and local whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles will be subjected to them every 10 seconds, for five months, in whale mating season.

“Scientists are clear we cannot drill for more oil and gas and meet our climate targets – and the use of seismic waves could have a devastating impact on the health of marine life.

“If [the surveys go ahead], the operations would also disrupt the local communities that depend on eco-tourism and fishing for their livelihoods.”

South Africa’s energy minister has defended Shell’s plans, saying its critics want to deprive Africa of energy resources.

Shell earlier warned that if the case goes against it, the company may cancel the surveys, ending the effort to extract oil and gas in the region.

Additional reporting by Reuters.

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