Geophysical survey requirements in California waters

To conduct a geophysical survey in California state waters, you need a permit.  The permit includes terms and conditions that must be followed.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography maintains a General Offshore Geophysical Survey Permit, which can be used by any Scripps scientist or any scientist using a Scripps-operated research vessel.

The permit, its terms, and related documents are linked here:  UC San Diego / Scripps Institution of Oceanography General Permit for Offshore Geophysical Surveys (expires 2023)

What areas are regulated?

The regulated areas include marine waters offshore to three nautical miles, as well as all granted and ungranted tidelands, submerged lands and the beds of navigable waterways.

What is the State’s definition of a Geophysical Survey?

Geophysical survey means the systematic collection of geophysical data for spatial analysis, within a pre-determined area of study, by reflecting sound or pressure waves off the floor underlying marine waters and non-marine waters, and analyzing such data to develop an approximation of the physical features of the surface or subsurface floor underlying marine waters and non-marine waters.

If I want to conduct a geophysical survey, do I have to do anything special?

Yes.  You need to comply with the terms and conditions described in the General Permit. The Principal Investigator is responsible for all compliance.  There’s a lot involved, and you should review the requirements at the earliest stages of your project planning. Questions about the permit may be addressed to Frank Truong , Director SIO Office of Contract and Grant Administration.

What kinds of instruments are covered?

The regulations here are restricted to low-energy equipment.  This is geophysical equipment that produces acoustic energy and falls into one of the following categories: subbottom profilers (e.g., mini-sparkers, boomers, chirp, and general subbottom profiler systems), echosounders (e.g., single beam and multibeam echosounders), and side-scan sonars.

High-energy equipment is regulated differently, and includes air- or water-compression devices that produce acoustic energy (for instance an airgun or water gun).  The Scripps General Permit does not cover high-energy equipment.

Are there any exceptions?

A permit is not required for the following activities:

  1. Geophysical surveys utilizing passive equipment as the only means of data collection.
  2. Use of autonomous vehicles equipped with low-energy equipment operating at 200 kilohertz or higher.
  3. Biological surveys during which the collection of geophysical data by means of low-energy equipment is incidental.
  4. Geophysical surveys performed in support of dredging to maintain or increase the depth of navigation channels, anchorages, or berthing areas.

Says who?

Geophysical surveys of the ocean bottom in the waters of the State of California are regulated by the California State Lands Commission under the authority of Sections 6108, 6212.3, and 6826, Public Resources Code.


These regulations establish conditions to ensure that geophysical surveys performed on State lands address and minimize potential impacts to aquatic life or to the environment as required by statute, and to ensure public notification prior to each survey.  

More information:

California State Lands Geophysical Survey Permit Program:

This site contains the full regulatory text, the pre- and post- survey notification forms, and other information regarding the regulatory program.

Attached file: UC San Diego / Scripps Institution of Oceanography General Permit for Offshore Geophysical Surveys (expires 2023)