A Global Campaign to Save Whales from Military Sonar, Oil and Gas Exploration
September 14, 2012
Nature's Voice / Natural Resources Defense Council
Around the world, whales are once again in peril. The advent of steam-powered ships and sonar other invasive technologies during the 19th and 20th centuries meant catastrophic declines in whale populations as many species were hunted to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, an international ban on commercial whaling in 1986 began reversing those declines.
As Whales Struggle, a Global Campaign
Targets Military Sonar, Oil and Gas Exploration,
And Illegal Hunting
(September 13, 2012) -- Around the world, whales are once again in peril. The advent of steam-powered ships and sonar other invasive technologies during the 19th and 20th centuries meant catastrophic declines in whale populations as many species were hunted to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, an international ban on commercial whaling in 1986 began reversing those declines.
But today, even as many of the earth's whale species struggle to recover from a grim legacy of overhunting, they face a host of latter-day threats to their survival, and for NRDC that has meant engaging in a sustained, multifaceted campaign to protect them.
"Twenty-six years after the whaling ban, many species remain at a scant fraction of what they once were," says Joel Reynolds, director of NRDC's Marine Mammal Protection Project. For nearly two decades the project has been fighting threats to fragile whale populations around the world: stopping industrial exploitation of the last untouched gray whale nursery, reining in deafening sonar and other noise pollution, and pressing for tough sanctions against countries that violate the commercial whaling ban.
Of all the extraordinary adaptations whales possess, perhaps few are as impressive as their ability to navigate their ocean environment using sound. Because sound travels far better than light under water, whales have evolved to "see" with their sense of hearing. They use sound for just about every vital activity, such as finding food and mates, which is why today's unprecedented assault on the whales' acoustic environment is so alarming.
The U.S. Navy estimates that its plan for using explosives and high-powered sonar during training and testing in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans over the course of five years will harm marine mammals more than 30 million times, causing more than 15,000 cases of permanent hearing loss, almost 9,000 lung injuries and more than 1,800 deaths.
"There is simply no other word for this than carnage," says Zak Smith, an attorney with NRDC's Marine Mammal Protection Project. "The Navy concedes the staggering risks but is not putting appropriate safeguards in place, such as placing the most critical whale habitats off-limits."
While the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is supposed to ensure that the Navy's plan does not violate environmental law and harm marine mammals, it has often fallen upon NRDC to step in when the agency has simply rubber-stamped the Navy's proposals.
Indeed, we have successfully sued to limit deployment of some dangerous types of sonar and forced the Navy to adopt common- sense precautionary measures. This past summer, our Members sent tens of thousands of comments to the Obama Administration opposing the Navy's latest and most dangerous plan.
Yet the military isn't alone in bombarding the oceans with deadly levels of noise pollution. Energy companies often use seismic surveys to hunt for oil and gas deposits, their ships trailing airguns that emit deafening blasts. "If you can imagine dynamite going off right outside your house for 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes every 10 seconds -- that's the kind of excruciating noise we're talking about," says Taryn Kiekow, also an attorney with NRDC's marine mammal program.
Of vital concern is the fate of one of the most endangered whale species on earth: Alaska's Cook Inlet beluga. Only 284 of these snowy-white whales cling to survival. Even so, NMFS recently gave the go-ahead to the Apache Alaska Corporation to ply the waters of Cook Inlet with airguns and other seismic devices for the next three to five years.
The agency's own scientists estimate such an assault will harm no fewer than 30 whales in the first year alone. "The agency should be protecting this imperiled species, not placing it in harm's way," says Kiekow, noting that it was only four years ago that NMFS listed the Cook Inlet beluga as endangered, following an intense campaign waged by NRDC and other conservation groups. Now we have gone to federal court to challenge the government's approval of Apache's plan.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has announced plans to open a majority of the Atlantic Seaboard to energy companies for seismic exploration, a move that would injure as many as 130,000 marine mammals, including endangered fin, humpback and North Atlantic right whales, according to the administration's own estimates. "The Atlantic has been off-limits to this kind of destructive oil and gas exploration for 30 years," says Smith. "We're fighting to keep it that way."
Beyond the threats posed by Navy exercises and commercial exploration, there is still the problem of commercial whaling, which persists despite the global ban on this age- old practice. Japan and Iceland have been stubborn in their refusal to abide by international law, killing hundreds of whales per year.
When NRDC learned that the Internet giant Yahoo! was profiting from the sale of whale products through its stake in Yahoo! Japan, we immediately alerted our Members, who sent thousands of letters of protest to the company.
Meanwhile, Iceland, citing a drop in global demand for whale meat, announced that it has suspended its hunt for endangered fin whales this season. Last year, NRDC and our Members were successful in pressuring President Obama to impose diplomatic sanctions on Iceland for its renegade whaling, and we continue to fight for strong trade sanctions as well.
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