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Environmental Protection in the Energy Industry: The Role of the Marine Mammal Observer

One of the more unique job positions in the oil and gas industry is the Marine Mammal Observer (MMO).  The MMO is considered an environmental consultant specializing in whales, porpoises, and dolphins, and is a role developed from concern for these animals during oil and gas operations, especially during offshore seismic testing.

Marine mammal protection is a growing field.  If you’re a professional with a background in biology and conservation who wants to work in the oil and gas industry, read on to learn more about a great opportunity.

Why are MMOs increasing in Demand?

Environmental regulations in the United Kingdom and United States are increasing the demand for MMOs.  In the UK, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) requires protection of marine mammals during seismic testing, so the MMO is included on almost every seismic testing vessel.  Oil and gas companies in the United States have taken similar measures:  the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires protection of marine mammals during offshore operations, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) requires that a Protected Species Observer (PSO) be included during all offshore seismic testing operations.  PSO is the US term for MMO, and in this blog post the two titles will be used interchangeably.

The Role of the MMO during Seismic Testing

Offshore seismic testing is used to discover petroleum and natural gas reserves.  Seismic surveys usually involve the use of an array of powerful air guns that cause a pressure pulse.  The resulting noise could disturb animal life, especially that of cetaceans, such as whales, porpoises, and dolphins who use sonar to communicate.  Seismic testing can disrupt their sonar, and potentially damage their hearing.

The primary responsibility for an MMO is to detect and monitor marine mammals within 1,640 feet of the center of the air gun array.  They are also responsible for ensuring that the seismic testing vessel adheres to environmental protection guidelines in regards to marine mammals, and educating and advising the crew on these guidelines.

In both the United Kingdom and the United States, visual observation is required during seismic testing.  The MMO will begin visual observation at least 30 minutes prior to firing the air guns.  If a marine mammal is spotted, the firing is delayed for 20 minutes.  After 20 minutes, the crew initiates a “soft start,” which is a gradual ramping up of the array, beginning with the smallest gun.  The soft start warns the animals and gives them enough time to clear the area.  In the UK, an MMO must include all animal sightings and firing delays in a report to be presented to the JNCC.  Many US companies use the same reporting methods for their own records.  The reports typically include data about the frequency and amount of air guns used and a record of animal watching.

In addition to seismic exploration, MMOs can also be required during oil rig decommissioning where oil platform pilings are removed by the use of explosives, marine construction projects, and military testing of new sonar systems.

MMO Essential Skills

Best practice oil and gas companies include an MMO in seismic testing operations even in areas of the world where it is not required.  They also employ more than just visual observation by including the use of passive acoustic monitoring (PAM).  PAM uses hydrophones (underwater microphones) to detect and monitor marine mammal noises.  This technology is especially helpful in detecting animals when the MMO cannot rely on visual observation, such as at night and in fog.  The word “passive” refers to the fact that PAM does not release additional noise into the water.

MMOs can take additional training courses to become a PAM Operator.  A PAM Operator is someone who is proficient in PAM equipment and testing.  He or she might also be an MMO or may work alongside an MMO.  In the UK, MMOs must pass a JNCC training course.  In the US, a PSO must take a training course recognized by BOEM.

Professional Support for MMOs

Established in 2008, the Marine Mammal Observer Association (MMOA) is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the profession.  MMOA aims to work with industry and government agencies to raise professional standards, as well as encourage the systematic collection and analysis of offshore MMO data worldwide.

Clover specializes in placing professionals in the oil and gas industry. If you are an Operator seeking to augment Project Teams, contact Jeff.W@clovergs.com

If you are an experienced professional looking for opportunities in the Upstream Industry (Alaska, Eagle Ford Shale Play, Bakken Formation, Deepwater Gulf of Mexico), send your resume in complete confidence to Chris.S@clovergs.com 

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