Scientists to White House: Stop Oil Industry Threat to Whales

Top experts say seismic surveys for oil and gas drilling would harm the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Marine biologists sighted this North Atlantic right whale entangled in heavy fishing rope 40 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida, in February 2014. (Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488/flickr)
Apr 20, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

More than two dozen marine scientists from some of the nation’s top research institutions have asked President Obama to suspend plans for underwater oil and gas surveys off the Atlantic coast that could harm the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

In a letter sent to the White House on April 14, the 28 scientists said the noise pollution created by these tests would devastate the whale, which at roughly 500 individuals is among the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

“We want to make sure that this administration and these agencies have the best available science to show what the situation is, their status and the level of threat they face, and how seismic surveys could impact the species,” said Howard Rosenbaum, director of the ocean giants program at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The Obama administration announced in March that it was suspending plans to permit oil and gas drilling in the mid and south Atlantic for at least the next five years. But the federal agency in charge of offshore energy development continues to consider applications for seismic testing in the region.

Such surveys typically use air gun explosions to create sound waves that can help pick out potential oil and gas deposits beneath the seafloor.

A seismic air gun discharging. (Video: Scripps Institute for Oceanography)

Of eight companies seeking Atlantic coast seismic testing permits, according to the agency website, seven did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would continue to pursue the permits. One company official reached by telephone declined to comment.

In January, the Obama administration enlarged the critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale fivefold, to more than 30,000 square miles, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said the expansion would factor into applications for seismic surveys.

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“Imagine that some time mid-May, or maybe in June, there is a spaceship flying back and forth over western Long Island, all the boroughs of New York, and extending into New Jersey,” said bioacoustics expert Christopher Clark of Cornell University, another signer. “Every 10 seconds that spaceship sets off a massive explosion, and that extends all summer, about 300 feet above you.”

“That’s what this is, a huge intrusion into life,” he said. “And that’s just for the right whales. There are no adequate data to predict, to understand the consequences of this kind of activity on commercial fish, recreational fish, bottom dwellers, or any of the invertebrates.”

While scientists used to believe that right whales spent different parts of the year congregated at different points along the Atlantic Seaboard, Clark said, the latest studies of underwater sound show that right whales are found up and down the coast year-round, suggesting that there are few ways to do offshore seismic surveys without affecting the species.

In their letter to the White House, the scientists noted that the most recent data on the right whale population, which for years was growing steadily, if slowly, suggests that its numbers are dropping again.

“That’s disturbing because we don’t understand why,” said Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium, who also signed the letter. “It may be climate change. Warming in the Gulf of Maine is faster than anywhere else in the North Atlantic, and that affects food supplies.”

It may also mean that current levels of activity along the Eastern Seaboard—where ship traffic and abandoned fishing gear already present huge hazards to the whales—are already overtaxing their health.

“This whale population lives within 100 miles of the East Coast, [and] 83 percent have been entangled in fishing gear at some point,” said Kraus. “North Atlantic right whales are subject to so many slings and arrows from our modern industries, and we keep adding on stressors.”

There is no firm deadline on when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will approve or deny the seismic survey permits, according to spokesperson John Filostrat.

Despite the bureau’s withdrawal of Atlantic Ocean sites from its latest five-year offshore leasing plan, “companies may still choose to pursue the permits,” Filostrat said in an email, as the permitting process for seismic surveys is separate from the five-year planning process.