Motion filed to halt seismic blasting

7 right whale calves have been seen off the coast of Florida and Georgia this year after a year where there were none. (© Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA)

A group of conservation organizations including SELC today asked a federal judge to block the start of harmful seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean, a precursor to offshore drilling, until the case can be fully heard in court.

The motion for a preliminary injunction filed in federal court in Charleston contends, among other things, the Trump administration’s approval for five companies to harm ocean animals with seismic airgun blasting violates three federal laws — the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. 

“The harm seismic blasting will inflict on dolphins and whales can’t be reversed, that’s why it is so important to have a full and open debate in court before allowing boats in the water,” said Laura Cantral, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. “We have a chance to stop harm before it begins and to prevent the precursor to offshore drilling, something that no coastal communities in South Carolina want.” 

Separately, 16 South Carolina coastal communities and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce also filed a lawsuit to prevent seismic blasting. That lawsuit has been merged with the one from the conservation groups. Ten East Coast attorneys general, including South Carolina’s Alan Wilson, have intervened in the combined lawsuits. 

However, without today’s request from the conservation organizations, the blasting could begin before this case is fully resolved.

The filing asserts that:

  • Dolphins, whales and other animals could endure five million blasts as these companies seek offshore oil and gas deposits.
  • The blasts will happen approximately every 10 seconds for weeks or months at a time. 
  • Seismic airguns create one of the loudest sources of noise in the oceans.
  • The government failed to consider the combined effects of overlapping and simultaneous surveys, which are greater than the effects of individual seismic-blasting boats. 
  • The government erroneously determined that only a “small number” of whales and dolphins would be harmed.
  • Should it go forward, this blasting will irreparably harm marine species, from tiny zooplankton—the foundation of ocean life—to the great whales. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized one company to harm more than 50,000 dolphins and another company to harm 20,000 more. 

“There are so few right whales left that risking harm or death to a single calf or a single female would be a devastating blow to the population,” said SELC attorney Catherine Wannamaker. “This season, we know seven calves were born, which is a remarkable turnaround from last year when none were. These new calves are a small but critical step for this species, and we shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that.”

The filing also claims the blasts could irreparably harm the small population of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species on the verge of extinction. There are only about 400 right whales remaining in the Atlantic. Further, the filing shows that blasting ships would “concentrate their fire” on the world’s densest population of acoustically sensitive beaked whales off North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The case number is 18-3326 in United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. It is assigned to Judge Richard Gergel. SELC is suing on behalf of our clients South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife, 100 Miles and the North Carolina Coastal Federation and was joined by several other national organizations.

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