SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. (AP) -- A federal agency gave its approval Tuesday to a plan to conduct seismic testing off the New Jersey coast, despite opponents' fears it could harm marine life and disrupt the state's fishing industry.

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It moves the testing plan closer to final approval. The National Science Foundation still needs to issue a final environmental assessment and a decision document that addresses whether the research is authorized to go forward, said Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

The agency's National Marine Fisheries Service issued a permit Tuesday to Rutgers University, University of Texas, and the National Science Foundation for the testing that allows harassment or harm to creatures, including whales and turtles that otherwise would be forbidden by federal law.

The tests are designed to study the arrangement of sediments deposited on the ocean floor during times of changing global sea levels dating back 60 million years. Environmentalists and fishing groups fear the acoustic blasting noises will harm sea life.

Some also feel the research could be used to probe for undersea oil and gas deposits in the event drilling is opened off the New Jersey coast someday.

"This is a terrible decision," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "It is wrong for our coast because it will hurt our environment, fisheries and marine mammals. This is not about science. It is really about getting information for drilling off our coast. This is the way NMFS celebrates Fourth of July, with underwater fireworks."

The agency says the testing will take precautions to avoid disturbing marine life as much as possible.

"NOAA Fisheries' role is to ensure minimal impacts to marine mammals," Barclay said.

The study aims to investigate features such as river valleys cut into coastal plain sediments now buried under nearly 3,300 feet of younger sediment and flooded by today's ocean.

Environmental, fishing and political groups plan a rally against the plan Wednesday afternoon on Long Beach Island.


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