Oil and Gas Surveys Pose Threat to Endangered Whales

April 18, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Right whales
Photo credit: Sea to Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA research permit #15488 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Scientists speak out.

A group of renowned experts in marine mammal science have sent an open letter to President Obama warning that a series of oil and gas surveys planned for the Atlantic coastal areas of the United States poses a significant threat to one of the world’s most endangered whale species, the North American right whale.

Around 50 feet in length and docile in nature, this gentle giant was once a preferred target for commercial whalers. By the 1930s, they had been hunted nearly to obliteration, and international bodies stepped in to protect the species. Although the population has since increased, current estimates place the population at fewer than 500 animals, and the species remains designated as “Critically Endangered,” according to the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Like most whales, members of this species communicate acoustically. Producing sounds may help North Atlantic right whales to navigate, coordinate group activities, and attract mates. Living at high latitudes in the summer, pregnant females head to the warmer coastal waters from North Carolina to Florida in the winter to give birth and nurse their young. This valuable stretch of habitat is precisely where the harmful surveys are set to take place.

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The proposed surveys will scour up to 90,000 miles of ocean floor off the East Coast for oil and gas deposits hidden underneath. Arrays of airguns towed behind ships will deliver blasts of sound to the ocean floor. The returning echoes will then be deciphered to determine if there is a potential fossil fuel deposit below.

"The airguns used for seismic oil and gas surveys produce intense explosions every 9 to 11 seconds for many weeks or months at a time. All of this is undetectable to someone at the surface, but the underwater impact and disturbance from these activities can be devastating to ocean life, especially for species such as the North Atlantic right whale," said Dr. Christopher Clark, Senior Scientist for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bioacoustics Research Program.

“Seismic surveys could interfere with communication, elevate chronic stress, and will disproportionally [sic] affect the most vulnerable members of the population, mothers and calves,” said Dr. Scott Kraus, Vice President of Research for the New England Aquarium. The scientists stress that for a population currently in decline, the planned surveys will only worsen the whale’s precarious situation.

Last month, the administration excluded the Atlantic Ocean from its five-year oil-drilling plan. However, Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program warns that this decision alone will not protect the North Atlantic right whale: "Even with the proposal for oil and gas drilling off the table, potential impacts from seismic surveys are still of great concern, especially given the endangered status of these whales and the threats they already face.”

Take a look at some rare footage of a right whale mother and her newborn calf:


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