Government Takes Initial Steps to Address Oil Companies’ Noisy Blasts Harming Whales, Dolphins
Harmful Seismic Surveys in Gulf of Mexico Continue in Violation of Federal Law
SAN FRANCISCO – The federal agency that oversees offshore drilling is finally asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to review the effects that intense, underwater seismic blasts have on whales and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. In a notice published today, the Fisheries Service says the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, the U.S. government agency responsible for permitting oil exploration in the Gulf, requested the regulations.
Department of the Interior agency BOEMRE and its predecessor, the Minerals Management Service, have for years allowed oil exploration using noisy seismic surveys without permits, in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
A coalition of conservation groups sued the Department of the Interior last year for failing to look at the significant impacts of seismic surveys on whales and dolphins. That litigation (NRDC v. Salazar) remains active in the Eastern District Court of Louisiana.
“We’re glad that the government has decided to comply with the law,” said Deirdre McDonnell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is long overdue. We’re hopeful that the regulations that come out of this process will reduce the impact of oil exploration on whales and dolphins.”
Seismic exploration surveys use arrays of high-powered air guns to search for oil and generate the loudest human sounds in the ocean short of explosives. The blasts, which can 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 between individual whales and dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish. More than 100 such surveys by the industry have been approved by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar since he took office in January 2009, all in violation of federal laws that prohibit harming or harassing whales and dolphins.
“Seismic surveys have a vast environmental footprint — and in this case they’re harming the same populations of whales and dolphins already compromised by the Gulf spill,” said Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s vital that the agencies take steps to reduce harm while regulations are prepared.”
While certain adverse impacts on whales and dolphins are unavoidable if offshore oil development is allowed, mitigation measures that can be required through the permit process, such as seasonal limitations on seismic surveys during times of the year when vulnerable species are present, could greatly reduce impacts.
“It is astounding that the federal government is only now seeking the required permits”, said Cynthia Sarthou, Executive Director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement has literally been breaking the law for over two years. We expect private corporations to play by the rules, and we certainly can’t allow the federal government to ignore environmental laws.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act prohibit private entities, such as oil companies, as well as federal agencies, from killing, harming or harassing marine mammals unless they have received authorizations and implement measures to minimize the impacts of their activities. The Endangered Species Act protects species such as the sperm whale, which is listed as endangered, while the Marine Mammal Protection Act applies to all marine mammals, such as the bottlenose dolphin and the Florida manatee.
The notice of intent was published in the Federal Register today. The Fisheries Service is receiving comments on the application for the next 30 days; the public can participate by emailing comments to ITP.Goldstein@noaa.gov.
The groups that sued over the failure to conduct an environmental analysis are the Center for Biological Diversity, Gulf Restoration Network, NRDC and the Sierra Club.