New study could help protect endangered whales

Right Whale

Endangered North Atlantic right whales may be more at risk from oil exploration than previously thought. New research from Cornell University suggests the rare marine mammals are present throughout the year at varying distances off the coast of Virginia, putting them at risk from the acoustic impacts generated by seismic airguns — used to probe the ocean floor for oil and gas deposits.

Biologists estimate that there are only about 500 North Atlantic right whales. Right whales and other large whales are highly sensitive to the intense pulses of low-frequency sound such as those produced by seismic airguns. Impacts to marine mammals from seismic airgun blasts can include temporary or permanent hearing loss, disruption of vital behaviors like communicating, feeding, mating, calving and migrating, and masking of biologically important sounds. According to the government’s own estimates, such testing would injure and possibly kill 138,500 dolphins and whales along the East Coast.

Fossil fuel companies are seeking government permission to explore the ocean off the Eastern Seaboard. To protect the whales, federal agencies have proposed a seasonal (November to April) 20-mile ban on seismic airgun testing, but the new acoustic datafrom Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program shows the vast majority of the calls occurred further away, about 65 miles from the Virginia coast. Whales beyond 20 nautical miles would not be protected and could be injured or even killed by the testing.

“Right whale occurrence in the mid-Atlantic has been a mystery for a while; scientists knew they migrated north and south at different times of the year, but the amount of time they spent around Virginia and other mid-Atlantic states was unknown,” said Dr. Aaron Rice, director of Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program.

“By listening off the coast of Virginia, out to the edge of the continental shelf, we were able to hear right whales calling in this area throughout the year,” Rice said.

“We found an increase in the amount of calling during February-March, and again in the fall, which likely corresponds to the peak portion of the migration,” Rice said. “However, we also detected calls during all other months of the year. This year round pattern is definitely a surprise, and raises many new questions about the home range of this species. Continued study will allow for a better understanding of the Virginia ocean ecosystems,” he added.

“Imagine dynamite going off in your living room every 10 seconds, for days to weeks at a time,” said Matthew Huelsenbeck, marine scientist at Oceana, a conservation group that helped fund the study. “You could be injured or possibly killed, and at the very least you would be forced to leave your home. This is what seismic airguns would mean for endangered right whales unless the government provides them with better protections. We don’t have to turn the Atlantic Ocean into a blast zone to fulfill our energy needs,” Huelsenbeck said.

“For creatures that depend on their sense of sound to survive, this is a severe threat,” said Margaret Cooney, campaigns officer with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Unbridled noise pollution is drowning out the calls of whales and other marine mammals with life-threatening consequences for finding food, mating, nurturing young, navigating and communicating. With fewer than 500 individuals left, the loss of even one North Atlantic right whale could have a severe impact on the overall population.”

In September, Oceana delivered more than 100,000 petitions opposing seismic airguns to Tommy Beaudreau, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, as well approximately 50 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, also called on President Obama to stop the use of seismic airguns earlier this year.