North Atlantic right whales, among the most endangered species, already face significant threats in New England waters, from ship strikes and entanglement in lobster lines to their food sources moving north as the oceans warm.
Now, with the Trump administration’s decision last year to lift a ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, they may soon face millions of seismic airgun blasts from equipment used to search for the fossil fuels. The blaring, far-reaching noise, scientists say, would harm right whales’ ability to rebuild their dwindling population.
At a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill, Democrats accused the Trump administration of “actively threatening the long-term survival” of the whales by allowing the seismic exploration. The airgun blasts in the seabed along the East Coast would create underwater shock waves “louder than all but military grade explosives” that would occur as often as every 10 seconds, last for months, and be heard for thousands of miles, they said.
“Seismic blasts could make the difference between recovery and extinction,” said Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee’s panel on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife. “For right whales and other marine mammals, sound is critical for communication, feeding, navigation, and survival.”
Noting that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that there are only 411 of the whales left, Huffman, his colleagues, and scientists testified that the endangered species should be subject to no additional stress.
Republicans on the panel, however, accused the Democrats of “hysteria” and serving as “prophets of doom.”
In defending the search for offshore oil and gas, Representative Tom McClintock, a California Republican who serves as the panel’s ranking member, said fossil fuels arguably saved right whales from extinction, as their emergence more than a century ago discouraged the use of whale oil.
“There’s no documented evidence of anything more than a negligible impact to marine mammals . . . from exposure to seismic testing on the ocean floor,” he said. “It may be annoying, but it’s far from dangerous.”
In response, Huffman smiled and said: “I feel so much better hearing that this is all a hoax and hysteria. Perhaps the experts here will confirm that, and we can all go home.”
He and his colleagues then questioned Chris Oliver, assistant administrator of NOAA Fisheries, whom Democrats blame for authorizing the testing.
Oliver confirmed that the species is in peril, noting that over the past two years 20 right whales have been found dead — all the likely result of some kind of human interaction, either entanglement in fishing lines or ship strikes.
While seven calves were born this year, the previous two years saw next to no births.
“Because the population is very small, its status can change quickly,” he said.
NOAA has taken a series of steps to try to protect the whales, including limiting speeds of large vessels during certain times of the year, requiring lobstermen to use sinking ground lines and weak links between their traps, and closing certain areas to fishing when the whales are nearby.
More drastic action is being considered, he said, including additional closures and a proposal that could reduce the number of lobster lines in the region by as much as 40 percent. “This would represent a substantial reduction in gear and significantly reduce the probability of entanglements,” Oliver said.
But Huffman and the Democrats pressed him on the agency’s decision to allow five companies to conduct seismic testing off the Atlantic coast. It’s unclear how soon they could begin.
They said the agency failed to consider the cumulative impact of the testing, in addition to all the other noise in the ocean, or require that it be done at a sufficient distance from the whales. They also noted that the agency’s approval reversed a decision by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management during the Obama administration that rejected seismic testing because of its impact on marine mammals.
Oliver acknowledged the noise could affect the whales.
“There’s evidence that the cumulative effect of acoustics can affect foraging, calving, and breeding behavior,” he said.
Two congressmen from Massachusetts called on their colleagues to support a bill they said would help save right whales from extinction.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat. “We could be the generation that saves the right whale, or the generation that allows their extinction.”
Representative William Keating, a Democrat from Bourne, argued that there was no way to justify exploring for fossil fuels at the expense of right whales, which scientists say are at risk of becoming extinct in 20 years.
“The tradeoff isn’t even close,” he said. “This is an existential issue.”