In the last three months, more than 3,000 dolphins have washed ashore in Peru, most likely due to offshore oil exploration. Oil companies in the region often use sonar or acoustic soundings to detect oil beneath the floor of the sea, and dolphins and whales can be affected because of their sensitivity to sound.
Toothed whales, including dolphins and porpoises, have evolved to be able to echolocate. Instead of having two nostrils like other mammals and baleen whales, toothed whales have only one which is used as their blowhole. A whale emits squeaks and whistles from its blowhole, and the sounds bounce off objects in the water, providing an echo. The other nostril has developed into a fatty tissue known as the melon, which is used to receive and focus the returning echoes.
Hearing is considered to be whalesâ€™ most important sense, used not only for navigating but also for feeding, bonding with offspring, and finding mates. Noise pollution cause changes in calling behavior, but can also cause whales to change their diving habits which can result in â€śthe bends,â€ť when nitrogen bubbles get trapped in the body.
Sonar can be extremely loud (imagine the sound of 2,000 jet planes), with sound waves travelling hundreds of miles through the ocean. Noise levels this high can cause fatal injuries, similar to those seen in many strandings around the world. As the worldâ€™s oceans become noisier, they also become more dangerous for whales and dolphins.
Sad news from the Gulf of Mexico: At least 32 dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, one of the hardest hit spots by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have been given physicals and are reported as severely ill according to NOAA officials.
The dolphins are reporting a range of symptoms from being underweight, anemic, low blood sugar and liver and lung disease. One of the studied dolphins has already been found dead.
There has been a large surge in dolphin deaths in the Northern Gulf of Mexico since the oil spill, especially newborn and young dolphins. In 2011 there were 159 strandings just in Louisiana, almost 8 times the historical average in previous years.
The numbers of dolphin carcasses found is likely only a fraction of the total amount of dolphins that were killed by the oil, and the true number is likely 50 times the total of 600 strandings since the spill, so more than 30,000 dolphin mortalities may have been caused by the spill already.
The spike in young dolphin deaths since the spill is extremely concerning, and showed biologists that the health of dolphin populations in the Northern Gulf had been compromised and many miscarriages may have occurred following contact with oil pollution.
Last week the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council released a report about offshore drilling safety, and I bet you can guess what it shows: Deepwater drilling isnâ€™t safe.
The report echoes many conclusions from previous reports on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, including Oceanaâ€™s report, "False Sense of Safety," and presents a solid set of recommendations that the government can use to make offshore drilling safer.
A few of the reportâ€™s conclusions paint a particularly stark picture of the continued dangers of offshore drilling.
The report, titled "Macondo Well-Deepwater Horizon Blowout: Lessons for Improving Offshore Drilling Safety," concludes as others have that blowout preventers, or BOPs â€“ the last line of defense against blowouts and spills â€“ are not designed to function correctly in deepwater drilling and so cannot be relied on. In the words of the report:
â€śthe BOP system at the Macondo well [had] a number of deficiencies... that are indicative of deficiencies in the design process... [that] also may be present for BOP systems deployed for other deepwater drilling operationsâ€ť (pg. 54).
But design is not their only problem; the report says testing is woefully inadequate as well. To fix these problems, the report calls for the redesign and improved testing of BOPs. In the meantime, deepwater drilling should be suspended, since BOPs cannot be relied upon for protection against spills.
The Arcticâ€™s Northeast Passage is home to walruses, beluga whales, narwhals, and many other marine animals, most of whom have probably never seen an oil tanker or shipping vessel. Unfortunately, thanks to global climate change, that could soon change.
As the planet continues to warm, the coveted Northeast Passage has become ice-free and thus open to cargo ships, oil drillers, and fishing vessels for the first time.
Thereâ€™s huge incentive for commerce and industry to use the Northeast Passage. The New York Times writes that the opening of the Passage shortens the travel time and reduces costs for shipping between Northern Europe and Asian markets. Companies like Exxon Mobil are attracted to the potential of oil and minerals in the Arctic seabed. And the elusive Arctic â€śDonut Hole,â€ť a patch of international and unregulated waters in the center of the Ocean, is full of valuable fish including overfished Atlantic cod stocks.
Offshore drilling, increased shipping traffic, and fishing vessels in the Northeast Passage threatens one of the great patches of marine wilderness in the world. Drilling in the Arctic could mean a spill in a place as remote as Northern Russia, which would make the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup look like a cinch, primarily because cleanup mechanisms such as booms donâ€™t work properly in icy waters.
Weâ€™ve been campaigning against offshore oil drilling to protect vulnerable Arctic habitats. We'll continue working with local native communities to ensure that future generations will see a healthy and vibrant Arctic. You can help by supporting our work to fight oil drilling in the Arctic.
President Obama announced today that he plans to suspend Arctic offshore drilling, cancel lease sales in the western Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Virginia, suspend activity on 33 exploratory wells and extend the moratorium on deepwater drilling for six months.
Senior pollution campaign director Jackie Savitz had this to say about the announcement:
â€śPresident Obama has now seen first hand the impacts that offshore drilling can have on oceans and coastal economies. The actions taken today are just the first steps. We are relieved that Arctic drilling is off the table this summer. We continue to call for an end to all offshore drilling, on every coast,â€ť said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director.