Waters off North Carolinas coast support a surprising diversity of whales and porpoises. We have 26 species, ranging in size from small dolphins, not much bigger than your average high school student, to ones approaching the maximum size and weight for semi-trucks allowed on U.S. highways.
Whales have yet to make a meaningful comeback from the days of whaling. Even with modern-day protections, environmental issues continue to inhibit recovery. Humpback whales that regularly migrate past our coast are still recovering from the commercial whaling that wiped out over 90 percent of their global population. Offshore hydrocarbon extraction issues now affect the recovery of this species and others.
Humpback whales migrating from breeding grounds off the coast of Africa pass by offshore oil and gas rigs. Recent studies have shown that they encounter harmful toxins associated with these operations. Marine mammals would encounter the same here in North Carolina.
Even before any drilling activity takes place off our coastline, whales and porpoises will encounter another serious problem. Last month the Department of the Interior endorsed seismic testing. Its a method of exploration used to detect gas and oil deposits beneath the sea floor, and it will damage the ears of marine mammals. We are not talking about temporary earaches.
Whales and porpoises depend much more on sound than land mammals. The speed of sound is approximately four times greater in water than in air. Research conducted at Cornell University demonstrated that undersea whale vocalizations carry for thousands of kilometers. They vocalize to communicate and employ echolocation to locate food. Because their hearing is so important, there is concern that even ambient noise from a ships sonar is harmful.
Seismic testing proposed for oil exploration would severally damage the ears of whales and porpoises. With impaired and lost hearing, whales and porpoises lose important social cues, cannot maintain their social groups and are unable to feed.
Common sense suggests that the testing could be done during seasons when the whales and porpoises are not present or at sites where they dont occur. The problem is that, although some species are migratory and absent from our area for much of the year, there are also ones that summer or winter off our coast and a few that are year-round residents. Different species occupy specific zones, but most occur along the edge of the Outer Continental Shelf, the very area where sonic testing for oil will take place. Furthermore, the exact area is irrelevant, as the sonic noise produced travels far.
Five of the whale species occurring in our waters are recognized under the Endangered Species Act. Additionally, all species are fully protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. This act protects these animals not only from direct threats like hunting, capture and harassment but also from activities that have the potential to injure or disrupt behavior patterns such as migration, breeding or feeding. Any grade school student could understand the problems that impaired hearing would create for animals that hunt by echolocation. U.S. waters extend 200 miles out from shore, so clearly the proposed testing area falls under the jurisdiction of these acts.
In the early 1990s, I oversaw a monitoring program that required observers when the Navy was testing equipment that produced electromagnetic pulses. We quickly learned that the testing had no ill effect on seabirds or marine mammals, but based on the contract with North Carolina continued observation was necessary. In 1999 the Navy was denied permission for yet another type of equipment testing off the North Carolina coast because an endangered species occurred in the proposed test site.
Required monitoring and permits were necessary for activities that might affect marine birds and mammals. Why does seismic testing now get a green light when there are known issues affecting endangered and federally protected species in the testing area?
Testing will lead to hearing impairment in local waters, but entire populations of migratory whales from the Caribbean to sub-Arctic waters could be affected because they pass through our coastal waters. This is a case where additional research is not needed, endangered species occur, the laws are in place and the solution is clear.
David S. Lee of White Lake was the curator of birds at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences prior to his retirement in 2003. He spent over 30 years studying the marine life of the Outer Banks.