One of Our Rarest Whales Needs Your Help

[Originally published December 20th 2017 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

Did you know one of the most endangered whales on Earth lives just off the Florida panhandle?

If not, then rest assured you are not alone; few people have heard of the majestic yet elusive Gulf of Mexico whale. Sadly, one of their most notable features is their dismally low abundance. It’s estimated that only 33 of them are alive today.

Already teetering on the brink of extinction, the whales now face an unprecedented dual attack from the oil and gas industry.

 There may only be 33 Gulf of Mexico whales alive today, making them one of our rarest whales.   NOAA (research permit #779-1633)

There may only be 33 Gulf of Mexico whales alive today, making them one of our rarest whales. 

NOAA (research permit #779-1633)

The “SECURE American Energy Act” (H.R. 4239) was a bill passed out of the House Natural Resources Committee in early November. If signed into law by President Trump, the Act would give the oil industry dangerous access to our nation’s waters, without protection for whales and dolphins or our ocean’s health. The Act also would eviscerate the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)—which has protected many of the ocean’s most iconic species for 45 years—by eliminating basic safeguards on harmful activities, like offshore oil exploration.

And any day now, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is expected to propose a new draft Five Year Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing program that will direct which U.S. coasts will be opened up for the oil industry. Despite the known risks (the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spillin 2010 represents one of the worst environmental catastrophes in the nation’s history), the eastern Gulf – and the last sliver of habitat left for the Gulf of Mexico whale just off the Florida panhandle – is directly in the industry’s crosshairs.

The oil footprint from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster covered 48 percent of the Gulf of Mexico whale’s habitat. An estimated 17 percent of the species was killed, and 22 percent of reproductive females experienced reproductive failure due to the spill.

If oil and gas development proceeds in the eastern Gulf, there would likely be no hope of the Gulf of Mexico whale recovering from its path towards extinction.

 If oil and gas development is allowed in the eastern Gulf, Gulf of Mexico whales likely have no hope of survival.   Anne Douglas (NOAA SWFSC)

If oil and gas development is allowed in the eastern Gulf, Gulf of Mexico whales likely have no hope of survival. 

Anne Douglas (NOAA SWFSC)

Gulf of Mexico whales are magnificent, filter-feeding baleen whales and are related to Bryde’s whales (pronounced “BROO-dus”), named after the 19th Century Norwegian whaler, John Bryde. Gulf of Mexico whales are highly distinctive from other Bryde’s whales, however. They differ in size, communicate using unique calls, and are now confirmed to be at least a genetically separate subspecies.

Earlier this year, the IUCN Red List (which publishes internationally recognized levels of endangerment for all species on earth) determined that the Gulf of Mexico whale is “Critically Endangered,” meaning it’s considered to be “facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.” Last December, I reported that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released their proposed listing of the Gulf of Mexico whale as an “endangered species” under the Endangered Species Act. The whales’ endangered status is largely because of oil and gas activity. The proposed listing followed a NRDC petition submitted to NMFS in September 2014.

Oil and gas already represents one of the main industries responsible for the decline of the Gulf of Mexico whale. The western Gulf has been open for seismic exploration and drilling for years. This is one reason we think the Gulf of Mexico whale lives in the baleen whale equivalent of a postage stamp of habitat in the northeastern corner of the Gulf, in the deep and unusually ‘S-shaped’ De Soto Canyon. The waters of the De Soto Canyon have been shown to be relatively quiet compared to the rest of the Gulf of Mexico, providing a refuge for the Gulf of Mexico whale away from the industrial din to the west.

CLICK HERE seismic_blast.mp3 (Credit: Scripps Institute of Oceanography) to listen to how loud a single seismic blast sounds. When exploring for oil and gas, multiple blasts are emitting simultaneous every 10-12 seconds, 24 hours a day, for months on end. This causes serious harm to marine mammals and other marine life.

 Gulf of Mexico whales have retreated to a tiny sliver of habitat off the Florida panhandle, away from the din of seismic blasting and drilling in the western Gulf.   Marine Mammal Commission (adapted from LaBrecque et al. 2015)

Gulf of Mexico whales have retreated to a tiny sliver of habitat off the Florida panhandle, away from the din of seismic blasting and drilling in the western Gulf. 

Marine Mammal Commission (adapted from LaBrecque et al. 2015)

The oil industry is pushing for the House of Representatives to vote on the SECURE American Energy Act as soon as possible. We are also expecting the new draft Five Year Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing program to be released in the coming days.

You can help the Gulf of Mexico whales by demanding that your members of Congress strongly oppose the SECURE Act and its attack on all marine mammals. And you can also be ready to say NO to the damaging actions of the Five-Year Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing program. 

Please sign our petition and find the office of your Congressional representative and give them a call.

 Save the MMPA!

Save the MMPA!

Threatened Marine Monument Is a Whale and Dolphin ‘Hot Spot’

[Originally published November 22nd 2017 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

Looking out from shore amid a rapidly approaching northeastern winter, you would hardly imagine that a hive of activity could be taking place in the distant open ocean.

Yet this is what the aerial survey team at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium witnessed last week, approximately 150 miles offshore of Cape Cod within the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

 Fin whales are observed feeding in the productive waters of the Monument.   Paul Nagelkirk (New England Aquarium)

Fin whales are observed feeding in the productive waters of the Monument. 

Paul Nagelkirk (New England Aquarium)

The aerial team found an extraordinary abundance and diversity of whales and dolphins, including bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins, filter-feeding fin whales and deep diving sperm whales, and perhaps most exciting of all, eleven Cuvier’s beaked whales, one of the most elusive of all marine mammals.

Importantly, several individuals were observed feeding, and the dolphins and beaked whales were all accompanied by calves or young animals. The rich feeding habitat within Monument clearly represents a marine mammal hotspot, and the abundance of young animals observed during this most recent survey, as well as on previous expeditions, indicates that it may even represent an important nursery area for whales and dolphins.

 Risso's dolphins (and a number of other species) have been sighted with calves during multiple surveys, indicating the Monument may provide an important nursery for whales and dolphins.   Ester Quintana (New England Aquarium)

Risso's dolphins (and a number of other species) have been sighted with calves during multiple surveys, indicating the Monument may provide an important nursery for whales and dolphins. 

Ester Quintana (New England Aquarium)

Established in September 2016 by President Obama, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is comprised of three underwater canyons that plunge deeper than the Grand Canyon and four impressive seamounts (extinct underwater volcanoes). The Monument is recognized for its spectacular array of deep sea corals as well as its large populations of fish, sharks, marine mammals, and sea birds.

Tragically, this ocean treasure and the only marine national monument off the coast of the continental United States is under attack by the Trump Administration. In April, President Trump issued two executive orders requiring the Department of Interior and the Department of Commerce to review 27 national monuments and make recommendations aimed at weakening their protections, reducing their size, or revoking them entirely, all in the service of commercial interests such as Big Oil and the commercial fishing industry. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was caught in the President’s crosshairs.

 Deep diving sperm whales also rely on the Northeast Canyons for their abundance of squid.   Ester Quintana (New England Aquarium)

Deep diving sperm whales also rely on the Northeast Canyons for their abundance of squid. 

Ester Quintana (New England Aquarium)

In a report leaked to the press in September, Secretary of Interior Zinke recommended to the President that commercial fishing be allowed in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The prospect that the Monument could be opened to commercial fishing is a grave concern. Whales and dolphins, and other species including sharks, sea turtles, and seabirds, can easily get caught in fishing gear and drown or become seriously injured, leading to a long and painful death. Entanglement in ropes from lobster pots and other types of fishing gear is one of the main factors driving the dangerous decline of the iconic North Atlantic right whale, and the vaquita off Baja California face imminent extinction due to bycatch in fishing nets. Opening an important whale and dolphin feeding area and potential nursery to commercial fishing would be a great loss.

The Monument’s economic impacts on commercial fishing are considered to have been negligible in the short-term and will, in fact, likely become positive in the long-term for some species as the populations in the monument area spill over to adjacent fishing areas. Recreational fishing is allowed in the Monument and the Atlantic canyons are a prime deep-sea angling destination. 

NRDC is fighting with every tool at its disposal to protect the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument and its marine mammals. If you want to help, you should urge your Senators to oppose any rollbacks to our marine national monuments, including the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

House Preparing to Sacrifice Right Whales for Big Oil

[Originally published November 21st 2017 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

North Atlantic right whales—the most iconic marine mammal of the U.S. East Coast—are struggling to survive. This year alone has seen the devastating loss of at least 16 whales, leading the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to declare that the species is experiencing an “unusual mortality event.”

New science shows North Atlantic right whales have steadily declined since 2010 to a best estimate of 458 individuals in 2015. The unprecedented losses over the past two years are unlikely to have reversed this trend.

Worryingly, females are less likely to survive than males (in 2015, there were estimated to be only 186 females left) and they now only live to between 30 and 40 years old. At the same time, female right whales are having fewer calves than they used to, with one being born approximately every ten years. It is also a struggle to successfully raise a calf to adulthood, as young animals are more vulnerable to ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement. This means that number of surviving calves is far from outweighing the number of animals lost every year.

If these trends continue, the species may become effectively extinct within 20 years, making it the first great whale to be lost in modern times.

 Injury and death from entanglement in fishing gear is one of the main threats to the North Atlantic right whale   NOAA News Archive 123110

Injury and death from entanglement in fishing gear is one of the main threats to the North Atlantic right whale 

NOAA News Archive 123110

Now the right whales face an extremely serious threat from the oil and gas industry and its servants in Congress. The “SECURE American Energy Act” (H.R. 4239), passed out of a Congressional Committee earlier this month, would give the oil industry dangerous access to our Atlantic Ocean waters, without protection for whales and dolphins, or our ocean health. If signed into law, the Act would eviscerate the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which has protected many of the ocean’s most iconic species for 45 years, including the North Atlantic right whale, by placing safeguards on human activities, like offshore oil exploration.

Without the protection of the MMPA, the already critically endangered North Atlantic right whale would be subject to the full onslaught of seismic blasting—the first big step in oil and gas development—off the east coast. The massive seismic survey area proposed by the oil and gas industry directly overlaps with the right whale’s migratory corridor, and the noise emitted from seismic blasts is likely to impact critical calving habitat. This could disrupt their ability to navigate and find food, and drown out vital communication between mothers and their calves. For right whales, every single calf is precious and a lost calf will not be able to survive alone in the ocean without its mother.

 The loss of a single North Atlantic right whale calf may jeopardize the survival of the species   Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759

The loss of a single North Atlantic right whale calf may jeopardize the survival of the species 

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759

These are impacts that North Atlantic right whales, in their dire conservation state, simply cannot withstand. In 2016, it was the opinion of 28 right whale biologists, including some of the world’s leading experts on the species, that the proposed seismic surveys may represent the “tipping point” that will drive the species to extinction. This risk is even more acute following the latest information on the alarming decline of this emblematic species.

The oil industry is pushing for the House of Representatives to vote on this terrible bill next week, after Thanksgiving. Please demand that your Representatives strongly oppose this legislation and attack on North Atlantic right whales and all marine mammals. You can sign our petition here; and you can go here to find the office of your Congressional representative and given them a call.

7_3_savemarinemammal_brydeswhale_calltoaction_2.jpg

Save the MMPA!

New Study Offers Way Out of Hot Water & Salmon Crisis

[Originally published September 22nd 2017 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

Coauthored with Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

The Pacific Northwest’s salmon are in big, hot trouble. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on a wild range of government efforts to save these sacred and essential fish—from transporting salmon in trucks around dams that block the river to shooting thousands of cormorants—with little recovery or success.

6_1_20161019_164614.jpg

A report released by Columbia Riverkeeper this summer sheds new light on what’s killing our salmon: hot water caused by dams. The report’s findings confirm that if we are going to save the salmon—and the killer whales and countless other species that depend on these fish for their survival—it’s time to rethink the lower Snake River dams.

Salmon need cool water to survive. Adult sockeye salmon have difficulty migrating upstream when water temperatures approach 68°F. Migration stops altogether when water temperatures reach 72 to 73°F. The fish then start to die from stress and disease. 

The summer of 2015 brought severe heat and drought to the region. During this time, parts of the lower Snake River stayed warmer than 68°F for two straight months, leading to the death of approximately 250,000 adult sockeye salmon. Only 4% of the Snake River sockeye that returned to the Columbia basin in 2015 made it past the four Lower Snake River dams. Survival of adult migrating Chinook salmon, the primary prey of the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales, was also at an historical low.

Columbia Riverkeeper ran a computer model of river temperature that compared conditions with and without the four lower Snake River dams. The model predicted river temperatures based on data about climate, the shape of the river, upstream water temperature, and other factors.

The findings were striking. A free-flowing Lower Snake River would have remained cooler than 68°F during most of the summer of 2015. In contrast, water temperatures in most of the dammed Lower Snake—specifically the three downstream reservoirs—reached 68°F in mid to late June and remained near or above 68°F until September. The reservoir created by Ice Harbor Dam reached 70°F by the beginning of July and stayed at least that warm until August. To compare the two, see below Figure 1.

 Figure 1: Comparison of 2105 summer water temperatures between the actual, dammed Lower Snake River (left) and a modeled, free-flowing Lower Snake River (right). The blue horizontal lines show 68°F—the water temperature that seriously impairs salmon migration. Source: CRK White Paper

Figure 1: Comparison of 2105 summer water temperatures between the actual, dammed Lower Snake River (left) and a modeled, free-flowing Lower Snake River (right). The blue horizontal lines show 68°F—the water temperature that seriously impairs salmon migration.
Source: CRK White Paper

The bad news is that the four lower Snake River dams significantly heat the river by slowing flow and creating huge, stagnant, salmon-killing reservoirs that soak up the sun. Each of the lower Snake River reservoirs was found to raise the water temperature by 2 to 4°F.

The good news is that without the dams, the lower Snake River would not warm up as significantly and would cool more quickly, as warm water would be flushed downstream by cooler upstream water. A ‘pulse’ of hot water takes roughly two weeks to pass through the dammed lower Snake, but it would pass through a free-flowing river in just a few days.

This region is famous for its beautiful outdoors, its bountiful wildlife, its big trees, and roaring rivers. But what really brings the Pacific Northwest together is its salmon.

6_3_free_snake_ariel.jpg

In a recent interview in Street Roots News, Elliott Moffett, co-founder of Nimi’ipuu Protecting the Environment, explained why he is fighting to remove the dams on the lower Snake River (Weyikespe in Nimi'ipuu): “the salmon is not doing that well, and so our people are not doing that well, and that’s one of the reasons why we take this on, because we’ve gotta heal our community, as well as the community of salmon, and the ecosystems that they swim in.”

Asked what the dams represent, Elliot said: “They represent an unnaturalness. …we believe the rivers have life, and they impede that life that we see. … When they dammed them, when they impounded them, they took it out of that life cycle. And now they’re just these big backwater, sediment-filled ponds, so our fish can’t survive in them. That’s what they represent to me. And I know for others they represent what they call progress, but that to us is not progress. It’s not sustainable.”

Perhaps true progress begins with admitting past mistakes. There is a way out of this hot water crisis. We free the Snake River.

Right Whales Need Our Help—Right Now

[Originally published July 27 2017 on the NRDC Expert Blog]

Guest author: Anika Agarwal, Marine Mammal Protection Project Summer Intern

Eight North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this month. With an estimated population size of 524 individuals, and only five calves born this year, the loss of these whales is a devastating blow to the population.

Three of the whale carcasses show signs of blunt trauma consistent with vessel collision. One was found entangled in fishing gear. The cause of death of the remaining five whales is still being investigated.

 Mothers lead their calves on the migratory path along the U.S. east coast.   Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Mothers lead their calves on the migratory path along the U.S. east coast. 

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

An emblem of America’s east coast, each year North Atlantic right whales travel through the waters of our coastal states, following their migratory path between feeding areas off New England and Canada and nurseries in the shallow waters of the southeast coast. Right whales stay near the water’s surface, breaching and slapping their fins, and mothercalf pairs are known for their gentle, playful nature.

Entanglement and vessel collisions are two of the most serious threats that North Atlantic right whales face today. Whales become entangled in thick ropes and nets when they swim through fishing areas—an incredible 72 percent of right whales have been entangled at some point in their lives. Ropes can become deeply embedded in the skin and cause severe injuries, often to the fins or mouth. Entanglement can also cause changes in swimming behavior, making it difficult to feed, migrate, and socialize. The drag from the ropes force the whales to swim more slowly and expend more energy, which can cause the whale to slowly starve to death.

Ship collision is also extremely dangerous. Serious injuries include bleeding, bluntforce trauma, propeller cuts, and broken bones. About 38 percent of reported right whale deaths between 1986 and 2005 could be attributed to vessel collisions. It’s believed that their behavior makes them particularly vulnerable as they tend to swim just beneath the water’s surface, making them almost invisible to ship captains.

Entanglement, vessel collisions, and noise pollution all cause significant levels of stress in right whales. Stress increases metabolic rate and forces whales to expend extra energy, which in turn reduces their health and, subsequently, their ability to reproduce successfully. The accumulation of these threats is making it incredibly difficult for North Atlantic right whale populations to recover from historic whaling, and the latest data indicates the population is now in decline.

 Efforts to disentangle a North Atlantic right whale from fishing gear; 72% of all right whales have been entangled at some point in their lives.   Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Efforts to disentangle a North Atlantic right whale from fishing gear; 72% of all right whales have been entangled at some point in their lives. 

Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

And now, North Atlantic right whales are facing an assault from the oil and gas industry. The Trump administration intends to allow seismic surveying in the mid-Atlantic. The massive proposed survey area directly overlaps with the North Atlantic right whale’s migratory corridor, and the noise emitted from the seismic blasts is likely to impact critical calving habitat. This may drown out vital communication between mothers and their calves, as well as disrupt their ability to navigate and find food. It is the opinion of 28 right whale biologists, including some of the world’s leading experts on the species, that the impacts of the proposed seismic surveys may well be a “tipping point” that will drive the species towards extinction.1

There are many other endangered whales living off our coasts that face similar threats, including gregarious humpbacks, majestic blue whales, and awe-inspiring sperm whales. Ocean noise severely impacts fish and marine invertebratesseismic blasting has been found to decimate zooplankton up to three quarters of a mile away. Seismic therefore puts the fundamental building blocks of marine food chains, upon which we and marine mammals rely, at serious risk.

Help protect the North Atlantic right whale and make your voice heard in the fight against Atlantic seismic. 

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1 Statement from C. Clark, S. Kraus, D. Nowacek, A. J. Read, A. Rice, H. C. Rosenbaum, M. Baumgartner, I. Biedron, M. Brown, E.A. Burgess, T. Frasier, C. Good, P. Hamilton, M. Johnson, R. D. Kenney, A. Knowlton, N. S. Lysiak, C. Mayo, W. A. McLellan, B. MacLeod, C. A. Miller, M. J. Moore, D. A. Pabst, S. Parks, R. Payne, D. E. Pendleton, D. Risch, and R. Rolland to the President of the United States (Apr. 14, 2016).