Shipping Industry Protecting Whales

The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association has partnered with US federal agencies to ensure whale safety.

New safety protocols put in place June 1 have resulted in modified shipping lanes near the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the Santa Barbara Channel and San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of freighters and commercial ships heading to ports in Southern California are now on altered routes through the Santa Barbara Channel to avoid striking whales. The changes are a result of data gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries, the U.S. Coast Guard and marine researchers along the West Coast.

Australian Humpback Whale population increasing at 10% per year

The Australian Whale Conservation Society (AWCS) chairman Paul Hodda says the humpback whale population is increasing. “The humpback whales that migrate up the east coast of Australia have certainly increased in numbers,” he said. They’ are recovering now at about 10 per cent a year

AWCS says heavy whaling in past decades threatened the species. “They were very severely hunted up until the early and mid 1960’s and we’re lucky we didn’t lose them altogether. He says not much science was done in the days of whaling. “But we believe there may have been 30,000 humpback whales in the group that is off the eastern coast of Australia,” he said.

Why the fight against noise pollution in the ocean matters

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Mother Nature Network

Michael Jasny explains how the NRDC and other conservation groups have worked to limit the use of airguns in deep ocean excavations.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration executive director Joe Pica encounters a humpback whale. (Photo: NOAA’s National Ocean Service)

Here’s a recipe for an environmental train wreck: Take one of the world’s most powerful industries, allow it to conduct harmful activities for years without obtaining the basic authorizations required by law, and produce a wealth of science making it plain that those harmful activities are putting endangered and vulnerable species at risk.
On June 20, a number of conservation groups, including my own, announced a landmark agreement that may prevent one such train wreck — this one in the already scarred Gulf of Mexico.
The underlying problem is airguns. To search for deep deposits of oil, companies troll the ocean with high-volume airguns that, for weeks or months on end, regularly pound the water with sound louder than virtually any other man-made source, save explosives. We now know that these surveys can have a vast environmental footprint, disrupting feeding, breeding and communication for whales and other species over literally thousands of square miles.
It’s the sort of activity that ordinarily requires approval under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and other federal laws. And yet the government has allowed it to proceed without authorization in the Gulf of Mexico, a body of water that may well be the most heavily prospected on the planet.
Industry runs dozens of exploration surveys each year in the northern Gulf, and many of them make use of large airgun arrays. For more than a decade now, the problem has languished, even as the threat posed by airgun exploration has loomed larger and larger.
Our alliance of conservation groups sued over the government’s failure. In the end, we reached agreement with both federal officials and industry representatives that will help protect marine mammals while a comprehensive environmental review is underway. [Hidden Tracks: Whale Songs Found in Seismic Recordings]
Among other things, our settlement puts biologically important areas off-limits to high-energy exploration, expands protections to additional at-risk species and requires the use of listening devices to help prevent injury to endangered sperm whales. Our agreement is also forward-looking, requiring industry to develop and field-test an alternative to airguns known as marine vibroseis, which could substantially reduce many of the impacts. Over the long term, the hope is that working together stands a better chance of saving species in the Gulf’s biologically compromised, politically heated environment.
Marine conservation in the Gulf isn’t like conservation in other places. Among other difficulties, the disruptive activities NRDC is concerned about are affecting the same populations still suffering from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. [Mental Scars Run Deep Years After BP Spill (Op-Ed)]
Here you have several dozen small, coastal communities of bottlenose dolphins, which have undergone a severe die-off since the spill; a resident population of Bryde’s whales, of which fewer than 50 individuals were believed to remain even before the spill occurred; and a population of strangely undersized sperm whales, whose nursery in Mississippi Canyon was ground zero for the spill.
Ultimately, our society must find mechanisms that reduce the industry’s chronic, cumulative impacts on these imperiled animals.
Last summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mapped average annual levels of ocean noise from Texas to the west coast of Florida, and found that noise from airgun surveys alone was approaching 120 decibels throughout much of the northern Gulf. That’s a yearly average level of noise that, for whales and dolphins, nearly exceeds the government’s standard threshold of harm for exposures of only one second.
Area closures will be needed like the ones in today’s agreement, but also caps on activities, prohibitions on duplicative surveys, and mandates for the use of vibroseis and other greener seismic technologies. Those solutions tackle the problem at the source, and the Obama administration will certainly have to consider them in the comprehensive review that our agreement affords.
The settlement represents a new starting point and an opportunity to make up for years of regulatory neglect. Now the real work begins.
Michael Jansy of the NRDCMichael Jasny is the director of the NRDC Marine Mammal Project