The North Atlantic right whale is the rarest of all the large whales and one of the most endangered species in this country. Already threatened by ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear, they will soon face yet another danger. Recently, the government announced that it is planning to allow seismic air guns in the Atlantic, which will greatly harm marine life and local economies.
Towed behind boats, seismic air guns map oil and gas deposits beneath the seafloor by shooting pulses of compressed air through the water every 10 seconds for days, or even weeks on end. But the deafening noise is also extremely harmful to marine life, including whales, dolphins, and even fish. Right whales and other marine mammals use sound to navigate, locate food, and communicate -- seismic blasts could disrupt these behaviors, or even deafen these animals. The government estimates that at least 138,500 dolphins and whales will be injured, or possibly killed, by seismic air guns if they are allowed in the Atlantic.
Seismic air guns will also harm the many fisheries which we rely on for food. Air gun noise can displace commercially valuable species of fish across vast areas, decrease catch rates for coastal fisheries, and kill fish eggs and larvae.
Despite these dangers, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is planning to allow energy companies to use seismic air guns to search for offshore deposits along a massive stretch of the East Coast, from Delaware to Florida. On February 27, BOEM released an environmental impact statement (EIS) detailing how they plan to mitigate the impacts of air guns on right whales and other species.
The EIS includes several prudent mitigation measures -- time-area closures for right whales and loggerhead sea turtles, acoustic monitoring and visual surveys, and shut-down procedures for when a marine mammal is present. But it won't be enough.
Even with these measures in place, seismic air guns will still harm wildlife, commercial and recreational fisheries, tourism, and coastal recreation -- jeopardizing more than 730,000 jobs that fall within the blast zone. And if this testing is followed by offshore oil drilling, we risk another disastrous spill on the magnitude of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The five states along the Gulf are still reeling from this catastrophe, dredging oil from their wetlands and watching depleted fish stocks struggle to recover from the spill. We are simply not prepared to drill safely without better technology -- Deepwater Horizon will happen again.
Until better technologies exist, both seismic air guns and oil rigs should be kept out of the Atlantic Ocean. While we're glad that BOEM included measures to protect right whales, and other marine life, we shouldn't be considering seismic air guns in the first place. We need smart investments in the Atlantic's most valuable resource -- its health.