Good for Shell? Bad for whales and walruses

Good for Shell? Bad for whales and walruses

By Nicole Rivard

Jeers to the Obama administration for its thoughtless decision to allow Shell to start drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Earlier this week the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved Shell’s multi-year exploration plan in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. 

Friends of Animals is disheartened by the fact the administration ignored both industry and environmental groups who say that the Chukchi Sea is one of the most dangerous places in the world to drill. According to numerous media reports, the area is extremely remote, with no roads connecting to major cities or deep water ports within hundreds of miles, making it difficult for cleanup and rescue workers to reach in case of an accident. The closest Coast Guard station with equipment for responding to a spill is more than 1,000 miles away, according to The NY Times, which also reported the weather in the Arctic Seas is extreme, with major storms, icy waters and waves up to 50 feet high. 

Imagine a catastrophe worse than the deadly Gulf of Mexico spill of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion killed 11 men and sent millions of barrels of oil spewing into the water—it could be a reality thanks to Obama administration’s poor decision this week.

Making matters worse, the Chukchi Sea is also a major migration route and feeding area for marine mammals, including bowhead whales and Pacific walruses, two species whose populations are already at risk.

Bowhead whales, the longest known living mammal on earth, are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act; depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act; and threatened with extinction by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Threats already include ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, contaminants and anthropogenic noise, especially from offshore oil drilling. 

Although they are solitary, bowhead whales are extremely vocal and use underwater sounds to communicate with other whales during times of feeding, travel and when looking for a mating partner. At times long, repeated melodic tones can be heard from miles away and are believed to be mating calls used to attract female whales. 

Man-made noise can overlap with and potentially mask the sounds animals use to communicate, posing new challenges for marine mammals , according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust in 2013 (http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/Assets/2013/06/07/arcticnoise_final_web.pdf.) The study says that the impact of seismic air gun pulses from oil exploration on bowhead whales has been the subject of numerous studies since the mid-1980s. Among the responses detected are the species leaving the area of seismic operations, reduced respiration or time at surface and a decrease in calling to other whales.

Most of the Pacific walrus population spends the summer months in the pack-ice of the Chukchi Sea. Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Pacific walrus as a candidate species due to loss of sea ice. Candidate species are plants and animals for which the Service has enough information on their status and the threats they face to propose them as threatened or endangered, but developing a proposed listing rule is precluded by higher priority listing actions.

The Interior Department’s approval of Shell’s drilling was conditional on the oil giant receiving approval of remaining state and federal drilling permits for the project, including permits from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and authorizations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Friends of Animals is hoping those permits never see the light of day. 

 

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