December 19, 2013
New acoustic data from Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program finds that critically endangered North Atlantic right whales off the Virginia coast are in the path of proposed seismic airgun use. These whales, of which only about 500 remain worldwide, were assumed to be less common in the area than new data suggests, raising questions about the risks of proceeding with planned seismic airgun use. The new data shows that these whales are present throughout the year at varying distances off the coast of Virginia. The recent analysis, funded by conservation groups Oceana and IFAW, is important as the federal government considers the use of seismic airguns to look for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean floor in an area twice the size of California, stretching all the way from Delaware to Florida, including the waters off of Virginia’s coast.
As part of the government’s review of proposed seismic airgun use in the Atlantic, it has suggested a seasonal closure to protect right whales from November to April, extending up to 20 nautical miles off of Virginia’s coast. However, while the government currently assumes that most right whales are traveling within 20 nautical miles from shore, the vast majority of the calls detected by Cornell’s acoustic monitors occurred further away, approximately 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. 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. 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.”
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.
“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. “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.”
“For creatures that depend on their sense of sound to survive, this is a severe threat,” said Margaret Cooney, campaigns officer at IFAW. “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.
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