Oil surveys in Gulf would injure 30 million marine mammals

whale in gulf

Seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico would cause harm to marine mammals, according to the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups. CBD issued its statement in response to a final environmental impact statement at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

 Its release comes as President Donald Trump seeks to expand offshore drilling in federal waters.

CBD said the analysis found as many as 31.9 million marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico would be injured and harassed by oil and gas seismic surveys.

The number includes 80 percent of the Gulf’s endangered sperm whale population, estimated at 763 animals. Sperm whales would experience as many as 760,000 harassing exposures to airgun blasting over the next decade.

“Oil industry airgun blasts harm whales and dolphins rather than giving them the protection they deserve. We can’t keep treating the Gulf of Mexico with such flagrant disregard,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Trump’s promises to expand offshore drilling will amplify the damage we’re doing to whales and other marine animals.”

The draft estimated that seismic blasting would cause as many as 588 injuries to the Gulf’s Bryde’s whales — of which only 33 individuals remain — or about 17 times for each member of this imperiled population.

“Seismic blasting harms everything in the water: whales, fish, even the zooplankton that are the foundation of life at sea,” said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “To permit seismic testing in view of these troubling findings would be to retreat from conservation.  It sends a message to the Gulf that, even after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil industry profits trump our coastal environment.”

Seismic exploration surveys use extensive arrays of high-powered airguns to search for oil. These generate the loudest human sounds in the ocean short of explosives. The blasts, which can effectively reach more than 250 decibels, can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding over vast distances, mask communications among whales and among dolphins and reduce catch rates of commercial fish.

“We were hopeful BOEM would opt for safeguarding our marine resources from damage associated with oil and gas development,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “Sadly, instead they have a once again put the interests of the oil industry ahead of environmental protection.”

In a news release, CBD said the report acknowledges what environmental groups have long warned: that sonic blasts cause harm to marine mammals.

The report estimates that oil and gas seismic surveys will harm whales and dolphins with as many as 4.3 million instances of injury, including permanent hearing loss.

“Flooding the ocean with noise from seismic surveys is a devastating one-two punch for the ocean,” said Steve Mashuda, an attorney with Earthjustice. “At a time when our oceans are already showing the stresses of climate change, it just doesn’t make sense to harm whales, dolphins, and other ocean wildlife in service of drilling for more oil we can’t afford to burn if we’re going to avoid the worst harms from climate change.”

Prior to a lawsuit, the oil and gas industry conducted seismic surveys for decades without the permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The report outlines possible mitigation measures, including closure areas where seismic blasting would be banned, and reductions in the amount of activity permissible each year.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit compelling the environmental review include NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, Gulf Restoration Network and Sierra Club, and are represented by Earthjustice.

John Filostrat, with BOEM public affairs in New Orleans, wrote in an email to WiG about the conclusion by environmental groups that BOEM’s environmental impact statement found “G&G work in the Gulf of Mexico poses a ‘significant harm to marine mammals.'” He stated this was “an over generalization that BOEM believes is misleading and even erroneous.”

He also stated, “In fact, there were no finding of significant effects to ANY resource analyzed in our environmental impact statement (EIS). In the EIS we say up to moderate (out of negligible, minor, moderate and major) for some species, including marine mammals.”