Seismic permits threaten future of North Atlantic right whales

The seven right whale calves researchers spotted in waters off the Southeast United States this year were a welcome increase from the previous calving season when none were born, but not nearly enough to relieve scientists’ worries about the species’ declining numbers. This is especially true when six right whales – including four reproductive females – have already been killed this summer in Canadian waters.

Despite this biological emergency, the Trump administration continues its pursuit of opening the Atlantic Ocean to offshore oil and gas exploration.

Drilling is widely and clearly opposed on the coast of South Carolina and, for that matter, by every East Coast state. It’s hard to grasp why the administration wants to push forward with dangerous and harmful seismic blasting when the very thing it supports is on hold.”

—Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker

In a recent court filing, the federal government revealed that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is moving ahead with processing permits that would authorize up to 5 million blasts per day as companies seek offshore oil and gas deposits. The blasts would happen about every 10 seconds for weeks or months at a time.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt recently told a Congressional subcommittee: “My own view is we shouldn’t be afraid of information. If we can do it and it can be done lawfully and it can be done responsibly, the data itself isn’t something we should be afraid of.”

But a growing number of scientists, conservation groups, municipalities, and legislators is saying seismic blasting cannot be done lawfully or responsibly.

“This is not the time to be adding a further major stressor of seismic airgun surveys into the environment of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale,” said Mark Swingle, Chief of Research & Conservation at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “These whales are already facing an uphill battle and seismic surveys could be a tipping point. We should be removing obstacles to their survival, not adding new ones.”

The population of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale has dropped 10 percent since 2010, to about 400 animals. The past three years have seen a marked drop in the number of births, with the species producing an average of just four calves yearly. 

That’s nowhere near the number needed to maintain the population, and not nearly enough to make up for a disastrous 2017, when an unprecedented 17 right whale deaths were recorded.

“Secretary Bernhardt is mistaken if he thinks seismic blasting can be done legally,” said SELC Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker. “The permits at issue violate laws designed to protected endangered species like the critically endangered right whale, and that’s why we are suing to stop it.”

SELC and a coalition of conservation groups; coastal cities and towns in North and South Carolina; and 10 East Coast attorneys general have filed or joined a lawsuit in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina to challenge permits the Trump administration issued to five seismic survey companies. Among the claims is that the permits violate the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Marine mammals like the North Atlantic right whale rely on their voices and their sensitive hearing to communicate. Repeated blasts from seismic airguns would not only confuse and disorient the whales, the sounds could physically harm the animals.

“Drilling is widely and clearly opposed on the coast of South Carolina and, for that matter, by every East Coast state,” Wannamaker said. “It’s hard to grasp why the administration wants to push forward with dangerous and harmful seismic blasting when the very thing it supports is on hold.”

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