Perform a marine seismic or geophysical survey

How to notify the Marine Management Organisation that you are carrying out a seismic or geophysical survey.

Perform a marine seismic or geophysical survey

How to notify the Marine Management Organisation that you are carrying out a seismic or geophysical survey.

Disturbance or injury to marine protected species can occur through man-made sound. This may occur during geophysical surveys, including marine seismic surveys. Underwater noise from human activities can affect marine species in several ways including causing behavioural changes, physical injury (e.g. hearing damage to cetaceans and seals), masking feeding and communication sounds, and can even ultimately result in death.

If you are planning to carry out a marine seismic or geophysical survey, you:

Marine licence requirements

If you are planning to carry out a seismic or geophysical survey, it is your responsibility to determine if a marine licence is required. Guidance is provided by the MMO to help determine if an activity requires a marine licence. This includes a marine licence interactive assistance tool to check whether an exemption applies.

Certain activities are exempt from requiring a marine licence. For further details on exemptions to marine licences see the statutory guidance, which includes guidance on exemptions for scientific research.

Geophysical surveys may be considered exempt from requiring a marine licence. If you consider this to be the case you must fill out a marine licence exemption notification which can be completed via the MMO Marine Case Management System (MCMS). This notification of the intention to carry out an activity provides the MMO with information on planned surveys. You should submit the form to the MMO at least 28 days before a survey begins. To be exempt from a marine licence, you must demonstrate you are satisfied that your activity will not have a likely significant effect on a marine protected area (MPA).

Particular consideration should be made to the potential impacts of surveys on protected sites with marine mammal features, including (but not limited to) special areas of conservation (SACs) designated for harbour porpoise for which noise management measures are in place.

If you are in any doubt as to whether the activity is likely to have significant effect, or you consider that your survey is likely to have significant effect, you should contact the relevant statutory nature conservation body (SNCB). This is Natural England for inshore waters within 12 miles of the coast or the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) for offshore waters. In the exemption notification to the MMO, you will need to explain why you believe relevant conditions are met and detail any steps you have taken to engage with relevant bodies set out above. Enforcement action might be taken if it is later determined that the activity, or the circumstances in which it was carried out, have significant effects on an MPA.

Wildlife licences

A wildlife licence authorises activities which would otherwise be unlawful under wildlife legislation. You must have a marine wildlife licence if you want to carry out certain activities effecting a protected species. A licence will only be granted where the activity satisfies the requirements of the relevant legislation. Activities that would injure and/or disturb protected species may be unlawful without a wildlife licence. Marine species protected under UK legislation include all cetaceans in UK waters, and also seals, turtles, sharks, skates and fish.

For most activities, MMO consider that implementation of JNCC mitigation Guidelines for Minimising the Risk of Injury to Marine Mammals from Geophysical Surveys are likely to reduce the risk of injury to negligible levels. These guidelines can also be used to reduce potential injury to other marine species, e.g. basking sharks and marine turtles. It is your responsibility to determine if any activity will cause an offence under wildlife legislation.

Geophysical surveys and seismic surveys can also disturb protected species, for example, if they lead to significant displacement of animals from important habitats, or from large areas for longer periods than the animals would normally be absent.

You may be at risk of committing an offence if sound from your seismic or geophysical survey disturbs a protected species. SNCB guidance on the disturbance of protected species, advises that for most cetacean populations in UK waters, disturbance is unlikely to result from single short-term operations (e.g. a seismic vessel operating in an area for less than 4-6 weeks). Activities lasting longer than this may constitute an offence and should only be undertaken in conjunction with a wildlife licence.

If you are uncertain whether you need a wildlife licence or whether your activities may disturb a protected species, result in an offence, or both, you should contact the relevant SNCB. This is Natural England for inshore waters within 12 miles of the coast or the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. For further information on Marine Wildlife Licences contact Marine Management Organisation by phone 0300 123 1032 or email

Marine Noise Registry

The Marine Noise Registry was developed by Defra and JNCC to record human activities in UK seas that produce loud, low to medium frequency (10 Hz – 10 kHz) impulsive noise. Geophysical surveys (including seismic, sub-bottom profiling and multibeam echo sounders) are amongst many activities producing such underwater noise. Whilst this is a voluntary procedure in many cases, there may be a requirement to submit data to the Marine Noise Registry as part of a marine licence condition.

The Marine Noise Registry is a data input platform where the industry can enter details on their activities (including the location and date of activities during the planning stages and after the activity has occurred). This data will help provide an overview of where and when noisy activities are taking place throughout the year. This is turn will help define baseline levels of impulsive noise in UK waters and inform research on the impacts of noise.

The MMO asks that operators who are planning to carry out a seismic or geophysical survey submit details of their planned activity directly into the Marine Noise Registry. Previously, the MMO asked developers to fill out a voluntary notification form. As the primary purpose of this voluntary notification form was to inform the marine noise registry, applicants are now being asked to fill out the Marine Noise Registry directly.

Further information

‘The protection of marine European protected species from injury and disturbance’ from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England and Natural Resources Wales

For queries relating to seismic and geophysical survey applications for oil and gas activities please see ‘Guidance: Oil and gas: environmental submissions and determinations’ or contact the UK Oil and Gas Authority.

Contact information:

Marine Conservation Team

Phone: 0300 123 1032


Published 11 June 2014
Last updated 5 January 2022 + show all updates
  1. Page updated

  2. Text change

  3. Included details of the Marine Noise Registry

  4. First published.