It Just Got Harder to Drill for Oil in This Endangered Whale's Habitat

The government moves to protect more than 30,000 square miles of ocean for the North Atlantic right whale.

Researchers conducting photo identification of North Atlantic right whales. (Photo: Brian J. Skerry/'National Geographic'/Getty Images)

Jan 27, 2016· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The endangered North Atlantic right whale now has more room to roam.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Tuesday that the agency is expanding critical habitat for the whale by 550 percent, carving out more than 30,000 square miles of ocean off the East Coast of the United States where it will be harder for companies to drill for oil, build wind farms, and undertake other development that could harm the rarest of the world’s large whales.

The expansion will take place in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, the main foraging area for the whales, and off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, where mothers give birth to their calves.

The total critical habitat area will grow from its current size of about 4,500 nautical square miles. It will not include right whale migratory routes through the mid-Atlantic, however.

The expanded critical habitat, which will be established in 30 days, makes it harder to get federal permits for offshore projects, such as energy exploration, seismic testing, and dredging. It will not impact shipping or commercial fishing, as these activities do not affect habitat, although they are currently regulated in terms of their impact on the whales themselves.

Connie Gillette, spokesperson for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said the new rule will have an impact on offshore development.

"We are already considering this new designation in environmental evaluations throughout all of our programs, including the Five-Year Oil and Gas Program, Renewable Energy Programs and potential approvals for geophysical surveys in the Atlantic," she said in an email.

Said David Gouveia, coordinator of marine mammal and sea turtle program for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region: “We are putting other federal agencies on notice that they must consult with NOAA Fisheries if they intend to authorize, fund, or carry out an action that may affect the critical habitat of the species."

“They must make sure they do not jeopardize the continued existence of the species…or destroy or adversely modify the designated critical habitat,” Gouveia said during a conference call. “In these situations, NOAA fisheries provides guidance on how actions can be carried out that minimize the impact on critical habitat.”

The 40-ton baleen whale was nearly wiped out by commercial whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the federal government listed the right whale as endangered in 1970. Since then, the North Atlantic population has increased from fewer than 300 to about 475 today, although calving numbers have fallen in recent years.

The new rule affects only critical habitat, because the whales themselves are already protected under the Endangered Species Act. Critical habitat is defined as “specific areas occupied by the species that contain physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species and that may require special management or consideration for protection,” Gouveia said.

Species living in critical habitats are more than twice as likely to increase their populations than species without such protection, a 2005 study found.

Of greatest concern are municipal wastewater discharges, oil and gas development, and preservation of the zooplankton Calanus finmarchicus (the whales’ preferred food) in the northern foraging habitat, and ocean depth, temperature, and calmness in the southern calving habitat, according to the new rule.

Developers and government agencies must obtain a “biological opinion” from NOAA Fisheries to ensure they will not negatively affect the whales’ survival or their habitat. NOAA Fisheries then works with the permitting agency to mitigate or eliminate the impact. Gouveia said he expects the new critical habitat area to produce 188 more biological opinions over the next decade.

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Animal welfare groups applauded the expansion.

“Right whales—more endangered than pandas, Siberian tigers, or black rhinos—received a lifeline today from the federal government,” Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement.

Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, noted that the new rule “doesn’t mean that anything is specifically banned. There will still be shipping, drilling, and potential oil and gas development.”

“It’s hard to say how much harder it will be to do these things, but it will add procedural protection to make sure nothing slips through the cracks,” she added.

Sharon Young, marine issues field director at The Humane Society, said the new rule won’t affect activities already approved within the expanded habitat, but proposed projects will receive increased scrutiny.

Wind farm companies are seeking permits for ocean floor seismic surveys in two parts of the expanded southern habitat and two areas just outside the zone, Young said. Seismic blasting can disorient and even deafen marine animals.

“We don’t believe that intensive surveys at the bottom and construction of wind facilities should go forward unless we know they won’t have negative impact,” Young said.

Barb Zoodsma, the coordinator of the NOAA Fisheries Southeast U.S. right whale recovery program, said on the conference call that any wind farm development in the area “would require the Army Corps of Engineers [to] consult with the agency on that permitting process and we would provide guidance on any issues they might have to consider.”

“Regarding seismic activity in the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank area, the U.S. has a moratorium on oil and natural gas development in U.S. waters in this area,” Gouveia said in an email. “That moratorium was set to expire in 2015, but the U.S. extended the moratorium until 2022.”