When you look out over the surf from the Outer Banks in North Carolina, it’s hard to imagine what lies beneath the choppy surface just a few miles offshore. Every once in a while you spot a dolphin surfacing or you watch a crowd of snorkelers following a school of fish. For the most part though, you can’t conceptualize the underwater world that’s teeming with sea life.
This week, Oceana released animated maps that provide a new window into this world, showing the remarkable density of whales and dolphins in the Atlantic off the East Coast throughout the year. The maps incorporate groundbreaking models released by Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Laboratory. Drawing from nearly 1.1 million kilometers of surveys collected over the span of 23 years, the final data is the most accurate and up to date model for marine mammal population densities in the Atlantic Ocean. The maps, which cycle through each month of the year, demonstrate the seasonal changes in population densities for bottlenose dolphins, and humpback, fin and sperm whales.
Overlaying the proposed seismic airgun blasting area with the new model confirms the sheer number of whales and dolphins at risk from these activities off the East Coast. Despite the recent decision to protect the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling, the threat of blasting still looms on the horizon. Seismic airgun blasting, the use of dangerously loud, intense blasts of air to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the seafloor, is currently proposed for a swath of the Atlantic Ocean nearly twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida.
A substantial body of peer-reviewed science demonstrates the negative impacts that seismic airgun noise poses for ocean ecosystems – including reduced catch rates of important commercial and recreational fish stocks, developmental delays in shellfish like scallops, and decreases and disruptions to whale feeding and breeding behaviors. Last year, 75 leading marine scientists sent a letter to President Obama on the impacts of seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean, stating that “the magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which approximately only 500 remain.”
The groundswell of opposition to these Atlantic oil exploration activities has rapidly grown over the past two years, with more than 115 East Coast municipalities, over 1,100 elected officials and roughly 1,100 business interests including 20 chambers of commerce, tourism boards and restaurant associations now publicly opposed to seismic airgun blasting and/or offshore drilling. Bipartisan letters from more than 150 state representatives in Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia were recently sent to President Obama urging him to oppose these activities in the Atlantic Ocean. In early July, 15 coastal mayors in South Carolina made headlines when they sent a similar letter to the Obama administration. New legislation has also been introduced in Congress aimed at protecting the Atlantic from seismic activities for oil and gas. The Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection (ASAP) Act, which is led by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) in the Senate and Reps. Don Beyer (D-VA) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) in the House, would establish a moratorium on geological and geophysical activities related to dangerous oil and gas exploration along the East Coast.
In addition to this outpouring of opposition from coastal communities and elected officials, scientists are revealing just how many whales and dolphins would be exposed to dangerous seismic exploration activities. These maps allow the public to grasp the wide-ranging presence of whales and dolphins in the Atlantic. Simultaneously, the maps are a useful tool the government can use to manage competing ocean activities and minimize harmful interactions. The direct overlap shown between proposed seismic blasting and high density populations of whales and dolphins in the Atlantic demonstrates the significant potential for harmful interactions.
But it’s still just potential. Coastal communities, fishermen, scientists, business owners and elected officials alike came together to stop offshore drilling in the Atlantic, and the same can be done for seismic blasting. Proceeding with seismic blasting for oil and gas is not worth threatening our beloved whales and dolphins, and not worth jeopardizing the marine ecosystems that fuel our booming tourism and recreation economies. It’s time to urge the Obama Administration again: no seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic!