Banner Image Photo Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,
taken under NOAA research permit #15488.
Every governor from Florida to Maine has publicly denounced the current administration’s proposal to allow offshore oil and gas exploration, development, and production in the U.S. Atlantic Exclusive Economic Zone—the area within 200 miles of the U.S. coastline.
It’s not just our state leadership. Fishermen oppose this. Local businesses and chambers of commerce oppose this. The people oppose this. Despite a formidable wall of opposition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gave the green light for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in late 2018 to launch a series of seismic surveys by five private companies along the Atlantic coast. Companies use seismic surveys to determine the location and size of possible oil and gas reservoirs beneath the seabed floor. A seismic vessel tows an airgun array that generates controlled explosions every 10 to 15 seconds for days on end while traveling back and forth across vast sections of ocean.
Marine mammals live in an almost entirely acoustic world. Within their oceanic home, they rely on sound to communicate, find food, and mate. The explosions from seismic airgun blasts are 200 to 260 decibels in water—the equivalent of 140 to 200 decibels in air. To put that in context, a jet engine at 100 feet away is about 140 decibels. Worse, these sounds travel thousands of miles through water, which can transmit soundwaves at far greater distances than air. Imagine trying to sleep, eat, or talk with your family if someone is setting off grenades outside your house every 10 seconds for months on end.
In March, Anderson Cabot Center Vice President Dr. Scott Kraus and Dr. Chris Clark from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology were invited to testify as expert witnesses to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and the Wildlife in a hearing convened to examine the threats to the North Atlantic right whale.
During their testimony, they spoke of the impacts that seismic blasts are known to have on many species and not just right whales. Seismic exploration has been shown to reduce singing in humpback whales, displace finback whales by hundreds of miles, and disrupt activities vital to foraging and reproduction over vast ocean areas.
Seismic sounds have been shown to negatively impact commercial fish species, including scallops, haddock, and rockfish. These sounds also kill zooplankton, the foundation of the marine food chain, for distances over a kilometer from each seismic blast. The cumulative picture that emerges from multiple studies is that seismic exploration off the East Coast will be loud enough to impact every aspect of the marine ecosystem from the smallest zooplankton to the largest marine mammals.
With about 400 individuals alive today, North Atlantic right whales have already been pushed to the brink by human activities. Despite 40 years of federal protections, the right whale population is declining rapidly due to entanglements in fishing gear, vessel strikes, underwater noise, and other chronic stressors.
The constant exposure to seismic airgun noise is sure to increase chronic stress, negatively impacting an already stressed population. So, while the seismic surveys themselves are unlikely to kill a whale directly, the added stress of the constant airgun blasts in their habitat may limit their ability to survive and thrive in an increasingly hostile environment.
To rebuild the species, we need more calves, said Dr. Kraus. We need to give the mothers and their calves “every possible chance.” That means removing stressors, not adding them.
We can still save the North Atlantic right whale
Aquarium President and CEO Vikki Spruill, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, and Florida Rep. John Rutherford penned an Op-Ed highlighting the threats to these endangered whales.
NOW MAY BE our last chance to save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction.
The North Atlantic right whale population once dominated the Atlantic Ocean with numbers likely in the tens of thousands, but today, only about 400 remain. In the 1700s, whalers prized these marine mammals for their fatty blubber, making them the “right whale” to harvest for oil and baleen. By the time whaling was outlawed in 1935, the species was decimated…