The Commission issues non-exclusive permits to qualified operators to perform geophysical surveys of the ocean bottom and marine environment. Operators may conduct surveys using specific types of geophysical equipment – subject to permit terms and conditions that were developed to minimize impacts to marine wildlife and the coastal environment.
The Commission issues the following permit types:
- General Offshore Geophysical Survey Permit
This nonexclusive permit authorizes geophysical survey activity during the permit term. A General Offshore Geophysical Survey Permit is required for geophysical surveys utilizing low-energy equipment conducted in marine waters under the jurisdiction of the Commission. This permit will be valid for 3 years from the date authorized by the Commission.
- Project-Specific Geophysical Survey Permit
This nonexclusive permit authorizes geophysical survey activity related to a specifically defined survey or surveys. A Project-Specific Geophysical Survey Permit is required for geophysical surveys utilizing low-energy equipment not conducted in marine waters or high-energy equipment anywhere within the Commission’s jurisdiction. Environmental analysis under CEQA may be required (i.e., an Environmental Impact Report for high-energy equipment) which would inform permit terms and conditions specific to the activities being conducted. This permit will be valid for a period not to exceed 3 years.
A permit is NOT required for the following activities:
- Geophysical surveys using passive equipment as the only means of data collection.
- Use of autonomous vehicles equipped with low-energy equipment operating at 200 kilohertz or higher.
- Biological surveys during which the collection of geophysical data via low-energy equipment is incidental.
- Geophysical surveys performed to support dredging to maintain or increase the depth of navigation channels, anchorages, or berthing areas.
Environmental Documents & Reports
The Commission has prepared the following related environmental documents and reports:
- Staff Report: One-Year Program Implementation Report (10/14/2014)
- Staff Report: Adopting the Addendum to the Mitigated Negative Declaration (04/23/14)
- CEQA Environmental Document: Low-Energy Offshore Geophysical Permit Program Update, Mitigated Negative Declaration (09/20/2013)
Since 1941, the Commission has been the state agency with jurisdiction over geophysical survey activities in navigable waterways. Between 1984 and 2013, the Commission relied on a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND), with subsequent additional conditions adopted in 1987 and 2008, to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when issuing geophysical survey permits. In 1987, based on new information related to the potential effects of high-energy geophysical surveys on marine life and divers, the Commission determined that permits for high-energy geophysical surveys employing airguns and water cannons could not be issued without preparation of an Environmental Impact Report. Commission staff administered a Low-Energy Offshore Geophysical Permit Program (OGPP) based on the earlier MND that authorized low-energy geophysical surveys using certain types of acoustic generating equipment.
In 2013, the Commission updated its Low-Energy OGPP by incorporating the latest science on ocean acoustics and impacts to marine life. As part of the update, the Commission conducted an environmental analysis of the Low-Energy OGPP, with public review, and adopted an MND pursuant to CEQA that identified protective mitigation measures to minimize impacts to marine life and the coastal environment from the use of low-energy equipment. The update improved public transparency and outreach to surveyors and others about the Low-Energy OGPP and permit requirements.
A 2014 assessment of the updated Low-Energy OGPP found that enforcement and permit compliance were concerns. In response, the Commission sponsored AB 1274 (Stone), which modernized existing law and directed the Commission to promulgate regulations to clarify the application of its Program, including identifying activities that do not require a permit and the process to apply for a permit.
AB 1274 took effect in 2015. It ensures that geophysical surveys conducted on state lands under the jurisdiction of the Commission, including granted and ungranted tidelands and submerged lands and the beds of navigable waterways, do not harm or damage aquatic life or the marine and coastal environment. The Legislature found that improved and updated regulations governing permit conditions can protect marine life from impacts of geophysical surveys and improve public transparency, particularly as it relates to notifying the public in advance of surveys.
In January 2020, regulations were adopted to accomplish the goals in AB 1274, including (1) promoting efficiency and consistency for the Commission and for the regulated community in the application, processing, and administration of permits for geophysical surveys, (2) protecting species and resources while coordinating public trust uses on state lands, and (3) providing transparency to the regulated community and the public regarding the requirements for, and the timing and location of, geophysical surveys.