Seismic Survey – Acoustic Disturbance

Key Legislation and Guidance:

For more detail on the Legislation relevant to this page, please use the following links:

Supporting Legislation:
Guidance Notes:

These guidelines apply to any oil and gas survey or shallow drilling activity and describe the PON14A application process.

These guidelines are aimed at minimising acoustic disturbance to marine mammals from seismic surveys and other operations where acoustic energy is released. Application of the guidelines is mandatory. The guidelines apply to all marine mammals, including seals, whales, dolphins and porpoises. All surveys using higher energy seismic sources (including site surveys as well as large scale seismic surveys) must comply with these guidelines or risk prosecution. Additional information is also available on the JNCC seismic web page.

These Guidance notes are currently being reviewed and amended in light of The Offshore Petroleum Activities (Conservation of Habitats) Regulations 2007 and revised guidance will be issued in due course.

These Guidelines explain the requirements of the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 2007 (as amended) (see the Performance Standards tab) and where a Wildlife Licence might be required. Note that these guidance notes do not include Scottish Territorial Waters and guidance should be sought from SNH or the Scottish Government on activities in these areas.

Consent Needed: Consent for survey is required for all seismic surveys and high resolution seismic site surveys on the UKCS. Additional requirements may also apply within license conditions.Seismic surveys within internal or territorial waters (up to 12 miles offshore) do not currently require consent (as there is no legal provision) but notification of survey is required. An EIA may be required for seismic and high resolution surveys in sensitive sea areas such as Cardigan Bay, English Channel, Moray Firth, St George’s Channel and deep waters areas to the west and north of the UK. EIA (and Habitats Regulatory Assessment) may also be required for any survey that could affect a protected habitat or species (see EIA Application).A licence under FEPA will also be required where any deposit on the seabed is planned, for example installation of seabed equipment for 4D seismic.Where there is a risk to European Protected Species that cannot be removed or sufficiently reduced by the taking of mitigation measures, then a Wildlife Licence may be required for a number of categories of activities (see Wildlife Licences under the Performance Standards tab).
How to Apply: Applications to carry out marine surveys must be made via the UK Oil portal as part of the new PETS system (previously PON14a). A Subsidiary Application Template (SAT) is required in relation to the appropriate Master Application Template (MAT) or a Marine Survey permit can be applied for as a standalone application. Information on the survey SAT/standalone application includes:
  • Type of survey
  • Location and timing (earliest possible start and latest possible finish dates) of survey
  • Details of equipment and vessel
  • License details
  • Consultations undertaken
  • Spawning areas of commercial fish species
  • Seismic sensitivities
  • Cetacean distribution relative to survey area

Guidance for marine surveys is under review (PDF document). BEIS (then DECC) Guidance on the new PETS system is available here (PDF document).

Any EA required should include a short description of the activity, an assessment of sensitivities, an assessment of possible interactions, mitigation measures and details of any other surveys in the area with the potential for cumulative impacts. If the survey is to be undertaken within a site designated under the Habitats Directive, additional information will be required.

Consent applications will require an assessment of potential disturbance to protected species (see the Performance Standards tab) to meet JNCC requirements.

BEIS has the duty to ensure as far as possible that all interested parties are consulted but this should not preclude direct consultation prior to surveys.

Any FEPA Consent required should be undertaken using Form FEP5.Who to Apply to:The marine survey application can be applied for via the UK Oil Portal under the relevant MAT or as a standalone application. FEPA applications to be sent to the MS in Scotland, or DEFRA in England and Wales.When to Apply:28 days before proposed survey. Where the survey is likely to be in an area of importance to cetaceans or where the Habitats or Wild Birds Directives may apply, contact with BEIS and JNCC should be made as early as possible, and at least 2 months before the survey. Early contact is particularly important where an EIA may be required or where a Habitats Regulatory Assessment under the Habitats Directive is possible. Shorter notice is possible for some site surveys, however a minimum of 14 days is required (see Geological Survey).Where a FEPA licence is required, 6-10 weeks should be allowed for the application process.What to do in the Event of Cancellations and Delays:If a survey is cancelled, BEIS should be advised immediately by email. Local fishing organisations will be informed by BEIS. If a survey is delayed or there are any substantial changes (e.g. large increase in survey area) this should be notified to BEIS by creating an update in the PETS system. To avoid frequent updates, BEIS recommends recording earliest possible start date and latest possible end date on the original marine survey application submission.

Identify Whether Seismic Survey is in or near a Protected Area under the Habitats Directive: The JNCC has produced a report that identified areas within which future sites may be designated and this is available through the JNCC website. Until sites are officially designated, these areas will be treated as if they were sites. If the survey is within these areas or close by, consultation should be undertaken with the JNCC as soon as possible.Regulations are currently out to consultation that will enable the statutory designation of sites (see the Pending Legislation tab).Further details on the requirements for assessment under the Habitats Directive are available on the Habitats Regulatory Assessment page.
Identify Whether Seismic Survey is in a Area Frequented by Marine Mammals and if the Activity will Adversely Affect any Fisheries: Contact the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC, Monkstone House, City Road, Peterborough, PE1 1JY, 01733 562626) to determine the likelihood that marine mammals will be encountered. In sensitive areas, the JNCC may request precautions in addition to those outlined below (for example, the special conditions attached to some oil and gas licenses).
Assessment of disturbance of marine European Protected Species: Under the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 2009 (as amended), a person is guilty of an offence if he:

(a) deliberately captures, injures, or kills any wild animal of a European protected species, or

(b) deliberately disturbs wild animals of any such species.

Disturbance of animals includes in particular any disturbance which is likely to:

(a) impair their ability:

  • to survive, to breed or reproduce, or to rear or nurture their young, or
  • in the case of animals of a hibernating or migratory species, to hibernate or migrate, or

(b) to affect significantly the local distribution or abundance of the species to which they belong.

Marine European Protected Species (EPS) include all species of cetaceans, all species of marine turtles and sturgeon.

The onus is on the developer carrying out an activity to:

  1. Assess the likelihood of committing a disturbance offence
  2. Consider the need for mitigation measures
  3. Decide whether to apply for a Wildlife Licence (See below)

A description of the assessment of the likelihood of committing a disturbance offence must be included in the marine survey application. Guidance on undertaking such an assessment is included in the JNCC’s The protection of marine European Protected Species from injury and disturbance for England, Wales and the UK offshore marine area. This document is currently being updated by the JNCC and a link will be provided once the document is released.

In addition, the JNCC have also offered guidelines for minimising the risk of injury and disturbance to marine mammals from seismic surveys – August 2010 (PDF document).JNCC Seismic Guidelines (see the Guidance Notes under the Legislation tab):In relation to oil and gas seismic surveys in the UKCS, it is a legally binding requirement of the consent issued under regulation 4 of the Petroleum Activities (Conservation of Habitats) Regulations 2001 (& 2007 Amendments) by BEIS, that the JNCC Seismic Guidelines must be followed, and the elements of the guidelines that are relevant to a particular survey are incorporated into the legally-binding condition of consent. It should be noted that it is the responsibility of the company issued consent by BEIS, referred to in these guidelines as the ‘applicant’, to ensure that these guidelines are followed, and it is recommended that a copy of the JNCC guidelines are available on board all vessels undertaking seismic activities in UK waters. When the survey is completed a MMO report should be submitted to the JNCC.Operational Requirements:Operators should plan surveys so that their timing will reduce the likelihood of encounters with marine mammals, although at present there is limited information on their distribution in some areas. Operators should also seek to reduce and/or baffle unnecessary high frequency noise produced by air guns or other acoustic energy sources.In areas that are important for marine mammals (as indicated in consultation with the JNCC) operators will be required to provide the most appropriately qualified and experienced personnel to act as Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) on board the seismic survey vessel. If possible, such observers should be experienced cetacean biologists. As a minimum, it is recommended that observers should have attended an appropriate training course. The JNCC will stipulate the number of MMOs required.A further duty is to ensure that the JNCC reporting forms are completed for inclusion in the MMO report.In addition to the visual mitigation provided by MMOs, if seismic surveys are planned to start during hours of darkness or low visibility it is considered best practice to deploy Passive Acoustic monitoring (PAM).If advised to do so by the JNCC, discuss any additional precautions, which can be taken to reduce disturbance and the design of any scientific studies, with the Sea Mammal Research Unit.EPS Disturbance and Wildlife Licences:If there is a risk which cannot be removed or sufficiently reduced by the taking of mitigation measures, then a Wildlife Licence (or EPS Disturbance Licence) may be required to be granted by the regulatory authorities for a number of “purposes”. Purposes include “over-riding public interest” and “scientific and educational purposes”. Licences can however only be issued where there is no satisfactory alternative. It is expected that the majority of activities will not require a wildlife licence since their potential for disturbance will fall below the threshold of the office in the Regulations. See the European Protected Species (EPS) page for further information.

Revisions to wildlife licenses effective from 1 January 2015 (England only)

Changes to general and class licence updates have been implemented after Natural England’s public consultation in 2014. From 1 January 2015, a licensee must make sure that they are operating under the conditions of these updated licences (as detailed here).

Identify Whether Seismic Survey is in a Commercial Fishery Area and Sensitivity to Acoustic Disturbance:Identify sensitivity using Fishery Sensitivity Maps compiled from data collected and collated by Marine Scotland, formerly the Fisheries Research Services (FRS) and Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS). In order to identify sensitivities by quadrant, the map of oil and gas activity on page 1 of the Fisheries Sensitivity Maps (also available from http://www.oilandgasuk.co.uk) should be photocopied on to a transparent sheet. It can then be overlaid on the individual maps. Reference should also be made (where available for your sea area) to BEIS Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) where more up to date information is provided.Because commercial landings data is collected on a coarser scale than applies to oil and gas license blocks, the maps are only indicative of potential sensitivities. They should not be read too literally and an overly detailed interpretation is not advised.What to do if it is an Area Important to Commercial Fisheries:The Fisheries Liaison Officer should closely consult with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) and the National Federation of Fishing Organisations (NFFO) to avoid serious disruption to the operations of either oil and gas exploration and production industry or the fishing industry, and to minimise any potential risk to fishing vessel navigation due to subsea installations.FEPA Consent:If a Consent under FEPA has been granted for deposits on the seabed, the licensing authority may require that the deposited material be removed upon job completion. However, conditions are attached on a case-by-case basis.

Monitoring: Properly qualified MMOs, as required by the JNCC, should be used to monitor and record the presence and abundance of marine mammals on JNCC proforma.
What to Report: A Survey Closeout Report must be submitted. This requires information on the survey area covered and sail line kilometres shot. PON14A Survey Closeout Form (Word document). A report detailing marine mammals sighted (standard forms are available from JNCC), the methods used to detect them, problems encountered, and any other comments will help increase their knowledge and allow them to improve these guidelines. Reports should include the following information:

  • Date and location of survey
  • Number and volume of airguns used
  • Nature of air-gun discharge frequency (in Hz), intensity (in dB re. 1µPa or bar metres) and firing interval (seconds), or details of other acoustic energy used
  • Number and types of vessels involved in the survey
  • A record of all occasions when the air-guns were used, including the watch beforehand and the duration of the soft-start (using standard forms)
  • Details of any problems encountered during marine mammal detection procedures, or during the survey
  • Marine mammal sightings (using standard forms) (the latest reporting Templates are available on the JNCC website)
  • Details of watches made for marine mammals and the seismic activity during watches (using standard forms)
Who to Report to: All Survey Closeout Reports (PON14A) plus required attachments as detailed on the PON14A should be submitted to the PON14 Coordinator at environmentalmanagementteam@decc.gsi.gov.uk. In addition, PON14As for site surveys should be submitted to the MEDIN Coordinator, BGS and for seismic surveys (except site surveys) to Schlumberger Information Solutions. Contact details are provided on the PON14A. MMO Reports are to be submitted the JNCC.
When to Report: Reports should be submitted post seismic survey.
Surveying in Breach of Marine Survey Requirements: Non-compliance with marine survey permit requirements would result in a cessation of operations and could result in prosecution and/or the revocation of the Seaward Exploration or Production License
Offshore Inspection: The BEIS (then DECC) Offshore Oil and Gas Environment Unit Enforcement Policy sets out the general principles that Inspectors shall follow in relation to enforcement including prosecution.
Surveying in Breach of JNCC Requirements: Non-compliance could result in the injury or death of a marine mammal. The JNCC guidelines reflect principles which must be used by anyone planning marine operations that could cause acoustic or physical disturbance to marine mammals. The guidelines should ensure that all marine mammals in areas of proposed seismic survey activity are protected against possible injury, that disturbance is minimised and that the license to operate is not exposed.
Deliberate Disturbance of Marine European Protected Species: If it has not been satisfactorily demonstrated to the Regulator that significant disturbance will not occur or where a Wildlife Licence is not held, an offence will have been seen to have been committed under the Habitats Regulations (as amended) or the Offshore Marine Conservation Regulations (as amended).
Renewal of Certificate of Exemption: Marine Survey Application  See “What to do in the Event of Cancellations and Delays” under the Consent Needed tab.FEPA Consent Licenses normally run for a period of twelve months after which you may apply for a renewal unless a previous license condition does not allow for this.
JNCC Interim Guidance on Disturbance of Marine European Protected Species: The JNCC has produced draft guidance, but the final draft has still to be approved by Defra lawyers and the guidance has not been adopted by the Scottish Government. In the meantime, the JNCC will provide copies of the draft guidance for information if required.
Disturbance Licensing Application: The Offshore Marine Conservation Regulations (as amended) introduced offshore controls to protect European Protected Species, as required under Article 12 of the Habitats Directive and these have supplemented and amended controls that were available in territorial waters under Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations. BEIS will be the regulator for offshore energy-related activities, apart from in Devolved Authority territorial waters.Licenses for disturbing EPS are applied for on the UK Oil Portal either in relation to a particular activity or as a stand alone application as discussed in the PETS Guidance (PDF document).
Offshore Petroleum Activities (Conservation of Habitats) Regulations 2007: Guidance Notes for Oil and Gas Surveys and Shallow Drilling – October 2005 are currently being reviewed and amended in light of The Offshore Petroleum Activities (Conservation of Habitats) Regulations 2007 and revised guidance will be issued in due course.
Proposed amendments to the consent document: In September 2012, DECC (now BEIS) issued a proposed amendment to the consent document (Word document) to replace the conditions that were based on guidance and best practice with legally binding conditions. The closing date for comments is 2 November 2012. If no comments are received the consent document will be formally issued on 5 November 2012.
Are you carrying out a seismic or geophysical survey? The MMO seeks to remind operators conducting seismic or geophysical surveys that they may be at risk of committing an offence if sound from their surveys disturbs a protected species (e.g. a marine mammal). To counter against such operations, the MMO have developed a voluntary notification form to gather information, allowing operators to receive feedback about proposed surveys.More details available here.
Government Funded Seismic data to be published The Oil and Gas Authority has released seismic data from the Rockall Trough and Mid- North Sea High areas which were acquired last year. Data packages under 20 GB can be downloaded for free here, whilst there will be a charge larger data packages to cover media, handling and delivery costs.
Marine Conservation Zones (England and Wales) and Marine Protection Areas (Scotland): The Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009 includes provisions enabling Ministers to designate and protect a new type of marine protected area, to be called Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ). MCZs will exist alongside European marine sites (SACs and SPAs), to form a marine protected areas network. Existing Marine Nature Reserves at Lundy and Skomer will be converted into MCZs.More information can be found on the DEFRA website. In Scottish internal and territorial waters, the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 has similar provisions for the creation of Marine Protection Areas (MPAs). The Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009 also makes provision for executive devolution to the Scottish Ministers of certain additional functions including nature conservation and enforcement. This will result in the Scottish Ministers becoming the lead competent authority for most marine nature conservation functions across both territorial and offshore waters around Scotland. It will ensure that a single authority has primary responsibility thereby facilitating a more integrated approach. Powers devolved to the Scottish Ministers include licensing of activities that would otherwise constitute an office under the Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 2007 (as amended) with the exception of oil and gas activities which remains with BEIS.
MIN 548 (M+F) Codes of practice for controlling risks due to noise and vibration on ships Marine Information Note replacing MIN 502 (M+F).
New marine draft Special Protection Areas being considered by Scottish Government: The draft SPAs that are being considered have been identified, based on many years of research on marine birds carried out largely by JNCC.
New Marine Protected Areas designated to help contribute towards safeguarding Scotland’s seas: It was announced on 24 July 2014 that 30 MPAs have been designated under the Marine (Scotland) Act and the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act. These will be incorporated into the National Marine Plan and represented in National Marine Plan interactive alongside existing protected areas. More information can be found on the JNCC website and the Scottish Government website.
Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) exploration strategy  The OGA has published an exploration strategy which outlines the key strategies which will be used to underpin maximum economic recovery of the UKCS.
Planning Information Assistance: A CD-Rom – “How to plan seismic acquisition on the UKCS” – has been developed by Hydrosearch Associates Ltd and funded jointly by Oil & Gas UK and the International Association of Geophysical Contractors.
Register for marine noise introduced Defra and the JNCC have introduced a Marine Noise Registry to collect and display data on noisy activities conducted in the marine environment, specifically to record human activities in UK territorial waters that emanate loud, low to medium frequency (10Hz – 10kHz) impulsive noise which can be disruptive to marine species. More information available here.