The Beacon

Blog Tags: Whales

Reducing Bycatch Casualties, One Whale at a Time

(Photo: Howard Ignatius)

As mentioned in our recently released Wasted Catch report, whales, dolphins, porpoises and other marine life are victims of bycatch, which is the catch of non-target fish and marine animals. Whales can become entangled in nets or trail fishing lines and gear that wraps around their fins, causing injuries and distress as the animals struggle to swim and reach the surface for air.


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A Blue Whale’s Life Story Revealed Through Ear Wax

Blue whales are probably the largest animal that has ever lived. (Photo: NOAA Photo Library) 

Instead of our weekly Creature Feature, we’d like share an awesome new finding about one well-known ocean creature, the blue whale. Scientists discovered that earwax can reveal amazingly details about the life of whales, according to a study published last week in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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An Eventful April for Oceana's Climate and Energy Team

Mock oil spills like this one were staged around the country in April to demonstrate disastrous effects of oil drilling on the oceans. Photo: Sarah Schwimmer

Oceana’s climate and energy campaign had an eventful April. In our ongoing effort to stop East Coast offshore drilling before it starts, we’ve been working hard to prevent the oil industry from taking the first step toward drilling: seismic airguns to explore for oil.

The specifics of seismic airgun testing are worth understanding if only because the oil industry seems to be counting on Americans’ lack of knowledge about this highly specific technology in order to get a foothold in some ocean areas that have been protected from drilling since the Reagan administration.


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10 Reasons to Prevent Seismic Airgun Testing in the Atlantic

Image via Current.com.

Yesterday, members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate sent letters to President Obama urging him to stop proposed seismic airgun testing in the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) is currently deciding if seismic airgun testing should be allowed to search for oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of seven states from Delaware to Florida.

This type of seismic testing involves the use of airguns, which are towed behind ships and shoot loud blasts of compressed air at 250 decibels through the water and miles into the seabed to search for deep oil and gas deposits. These airguns make intense pulses of sound, almost as loud as explosives, every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, for days to weeks on end. The blasts are so loud and constant that they can injure or disturb vital behaviors in fish, dolphins, whales and sea turtles.

Marine life impacts can include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, and even beach strandings and death. If approved, seismic airguns will threaten endangered species, fisheries and coastal economies throughout the Atlantic.

These disruptive airguns are unnecessary and dangerous and here are the top 10 reasons why:

1. Seismic airgun testing is the first step towards deepwater drilling, the same practice that brought us the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in 2010.

2. Seismic airgun testing will injure about 138,500 whales and dolphins, nine of which are North Atlantic right whales, one of the most endangered species on the planet, based on DOI’s own study, which may underestimate the impacts.

3. In Peru in early 2012, 900 dolphins and porpoises washed up on shore dead with physical signs of damage to their ear bones following seismic airgun testing. In 2008 a similar mass die off occurred for dozens of melon-headed whales in Madagascar after testing.

4. Because it displaces fish and can harm fisheries, seismic airgun testing threatens over 200,000 jobs in commercial and recreational fishing.

5. There are less harmful technologies than airguns on the horizon but they are not being considered by DOI.

6. Seismic testing or drilling in the Atlantic would not reduce U.S. gas prices by even a penny.

7. Oil and gas companies already own oil and gas leases on millions of acres of federal lands and waters, many of them are inactive and have not been developed.

8. The burning of oil and gas contributes to global climate change and ocean acidification, so new drilling in the Atlantic is not the solution to our energy challenges.

9. There is no need to conduct seismic airgun testing now, since the administration does not plan to hold oil and gas lease sales in the area until at least 2017.

10. Atlantic offshore wind could supply more jobs and energy than oil and gas in the region.

Learn more about the harmful impacts of seismic airguns and tell the President to protect whales and dolphins in the Atlantic, not drive them away. 


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Sperm Whales Adopt Malformed Dolphin Into Their Group

Deformed dolphin plays along with its adopted sperm whale family. Photo credit: Alexander D. M. Wilson/Aquatic Mammals and ScienceNOW News http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/

 


Herman Melville’s Moby Dick may paint a picture of the sperm whale as a terrifying, ferocious creature that destroys ships and attacks the sailors on them, but modern research shows that sperm whales are compassionate and social creatures, dangerous only to the fish and squid that the giant whale feasts on for dinner, or to the orca whales that prey on sperm whale calves. A heartwarming and unusual recent discovery does even more to distinguish the sperm whale from its deadly reputation, as a group of sperm whales were observed “adopting” a bottlenose dolphin with a spinal malformation.


Behavioral ecologists Alexander Wilson and Jens Krause discovered this unique phenomenon when they set out to observe sperm whales off the island of Pico in the Azores in 2011. Upon arriving there, they discovered a whale group of adult sperm whales, several whale calves, and an adult male bottlenose dolphin. Over the next eight days, the pair observed the dolphin with the whales six more times, socializing and even nuzzling and rubbing members of the group. At times, the sperm whales seemed merely to tolerate the dolphin’s affection, while at others, they reciprocated. "It really looked like they had accepted the dolphin for whatever reason," Wilson reports to ScienceNOW. "They were being very sociable."


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New York Times Warns of Noisy Oceans

Blue whale off Dana Point, California. ©Valarie Van Cleave

An article in today's New York Times science section details an effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map the effects of human-generated noise in the ocean. Whether it's the drone of commercial shipping or the deafening blasts of seismic air guns, sounds that can travel for hundreds of miles, this noise has been on the rise for decades. For animals that depend on sound as their primary means for communicating or finding prey, this increasingly cacaphonous environment can have devastating consequences

The article articulates well the dangers posed to the ocean's inhabitants by an increasingly noisy ocean:

Sea mammals evolved sharp hearing to take advantage of sound’s reach and to compensate for poor visibility. The heads of whales and dolphins are mazes of resonant chambers and acoustic lenses that give the animals not only extraordinary hearing but complex voices they use to communicate.

In recent decades, humans have added raucous clatter to the primal chorus. Mr. Bahtiarian noted that the noise of a typical cargo vessel could rival that of a jet. Even louder, he added, are air guns fired near the surface from ships used in oil and gas exploration. Their waves radiate downward and penetrate deep into the seabed, helping oil companies locate hidden pockets of hydrocarbons.

Marine biologists have linked the human noises to reductions in mammalian vocalization, which suggests declines in foraging and breeding.

The sorts of air gun tests described above are currently being proposed for waters spanning from Delaware to Florida to search for oil and gas deposits. The Department of the Interior which is reviewing the proposal and will issue its decision sometime next year, estimates that those tests would injure 138,500 whales and dolphins.

In this case “injuring” often means literally deafening the animals. For whales and dolphins that use sound as the primary means to find mates, find food, and communicate, such as the North Atlantic right whale (of which there are an estimated 361 left on the planet) going deaf is equivalent to a death sentence.

The tests could also wreak havoc on the area's $12 billion fishing industry. Similar tests elsewhere have resulted in drops in catches of cod and haddock from 40 to 80 percent after the use of just a single airgun array.


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CEO Note: The Danger of Seismic Blasts

Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless

Sometime early next year the Department of the Interior will decide whether to approve seismic airgun testing to search for oil and gas deposits in a wide swath of ocean, from Delaware to Florida. If the Department goes ahead with the proposal, by their own conservative estimates, 138,500 whales and dolphins will be injured as a result.

Seismic airguns arrays work by discharging compressed air with dynamite-like intensity into the water column at 10 second intervals around the clock, for weeks on end. For marine mammals nearby the sound is literally deafening—and for animals that crucially rely on sound to navigate, find food and communicate, going deaf is tantamount to a death sentence.

But seismic airgun testing won’t only be detrimental to those below the water. The huge expanse of ocean where testing will take place is already home to a $12 billion fishing industry that employs 200,000 men and women. These fishermen are scared, and with good reason. Cod and haddock fisheries have seen catch plummet 40 to 80 percent after the use of a single airgun array and fishermen in Norway have had to seek compensation for a drop in catch in the wake of testing.

“It's a disaster waiting to happen,” said actress, environmentalist and Oceana donor Victoria Principal. Principal is supporting Oceana’s efforts to prevent seismic testing in the Atlantic, including the launch, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, of a brand new Facebook application, where you can add your photo to sign our petition to the Department of the Interior.

As Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck recently told the New York Times about the proposal, “If they receive an environmental impact statement that says ‘go for it,’ they could start in 2013. This is coming down to the wire.”

If you are on Facebook, I encourage you to add your photo to our petition, and please spread the word.

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana


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Help Stop the Assault on Whales and Dolphins With Just Your Facebook Photo

©Oceana

Editor’s note: This blog by actress and environmentalist Victoria Principal was originally posted at NRDC’s OnEarth blog.

I’ve been fascinated with marine life like whales and dolphins since I was a kid. Their grace and power, their beauty and intelligence, their joy and their song -- they are truly special creatures.

Now, as an adult, I feel a responsibility to do all I can to help protect ocean wildlife from environmental risks  … like the latest threat posed by oil companies dead set on seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean.

In case you haven’t heard, for the first time in 30 years the U.S. government plans to open up the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to Delaware to high-intensity seismic exploration for offshore oil and gas.

It's a disaster waiting to happen. After the BP oil spill I teamed up with NRDC and Oceana to help protect the ocean from further tragedy. In an effort to stop these seismic testing plans from happening, we’ve created a Facebook photo petition urging the Secretary of Interior to abandon this plan. Please “sign” the petition by adding your Facebook profile photo!

seismic petition

Add your picture to our Facebook photo petition urging the Department of the Interior to abandon the proposal to allow seismic testing in the Atlantic that could injure hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins!

Not only is seismic testing the gateway to drilling off our coasts, it represents in itself a major assault on our oceans, with widespread harm to ocean wildlife like whales, dolphins and fish. Seismic testing in the Atlantic would expose ocean wildlife to constant dynamite-like blasts about every 10 seconds, 24-hours a day, for weeks and months on end. Even the government admits it could injure up to 138,500 marine mammals and disrupt marine mammal feeding, calving, breeding, and other vital activities more than 13.5 million times.

And because of the enormous distance sound can travel in the ocean, the noise from seismic testing can stretch many hundreds of miles and drive whales to abandon their habitats, go silent, and cease foraging over vast areas of ocean. At shorter distances, it can cause permanent hearing loss, injury, and death.

It would also harm our multi-billion dollar fishing, tourism, and recreational industries that support hundreds of thousands of American jobs. All of this just to make it easier for oil companies to find new sites in our oceans for offshore drilling.

And that just breaks my heart.

The upside though is that we can do something about it. If enough people add their photo to the petition, the Secretary of the Interior will have to take notice. It’s not too late to turn this thing around.

If you’re not on Facebook, you can also sign our traditional-style petition here. Every signature counts!


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Oceana Holds Seismic Airgun Protest

Protesters brave the rain ©OCEANA

Yesterday Oceana and its supporters braved foul weather to protest a truly foul idea. Armed with airhorns and megaphones they gave the Department of the Interior (DOI) a tiny preview of what is in store for the ocean’s inhabitants should the Department allow seismic airgun testing to go forward in the Atlantic Ocean.

The DOI is currently reviewing a proposal to use seismic airguns to search for pockets of oil and gas in a huge expanse of ocean from Delaware to Florida. The effects of these round-the-clock tests, which will run for days on end with dynamite-like blasts firing at 10 second intervals, will be devastating to marine mammals and fish alike.

As Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck said at the event:

“There is only one word that I can use that sums up this proposal: unacceptable. The levels of impacts to protected dolphins and whales, including critically endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale are simply unacceptable.”


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Shell Gets Green Light to Harass Marine Mammals

Bowhead whales would be affected by Shell's drilling. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Shell now has the green light from the government to harass marine mammals and put them at risk of a major oil spill in the region.

The Arctic Ocean is home to an abundance of wildlife. In the spring, consistent and extensive polynyas—stretches of open water surrounded by sea ice—create pathways into the Arctic for bowhead whales, seals, and birds seeking to take advantage of the explosion of productivity created by summer’s constant daylight.  

For millennia, this great migration of marine mammals and seabirds has been a part of the Inupiat subsistence culture. Now, however, these animals and ecosystems are at risk. Despite the lack of basic scientific information and demonstrated ability to clean up spilled oil in Arctic conditions, our government is poised to allow companies to move forward with offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. 

Whales, walrus, and other species are protected by laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may permit small numbers of marine mammals to be “harassed” by industrial activities by issuing the company an “incidental harassment authorization” or “letter of authorization.”

So what, exactly, is allowed?  According to the government, Shell’s plans will result in “Level B” harassment,” which means the activities have:

the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.

According to the government documents, Shell’s drilling activities would result in harassment of thousands of marine mammals such as whales and seals

Of course, it is difficult to evaluate these numbers, or what they might mean for these populations because we are missing basic information, such as good estimates of the numbers of seals and walrus. A fuller understanding of the food web, ocean conditions, and changes due to warming would allow us to better understand the impacts of this harassment and Shell’s proposals more broadly.

humorous website is drawing attention to the impact that Shell’s proposed Arctic drilling program will have on marine mammals, but this is no joke. For its part, Shell continues to push aggressively to drill this summer even as it backtracks on commitments to protect clean air, argues with the Coast Guard about how strong its response barge must be, and loses control of its drill ship. 


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