NRDC Goes to Court: Sperm Whales vs. BP

A few months ago, as oil began to gush from the wellhead and it had become clear to all but BP’s Tony Hayward that we had a major environmental disaster on our hands, I blogged about the Gulf’s small population of sperm whales.

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I was particularly concerned about the sperm whales because BP's oil happened to be gushing directly into their neighborhood.  For more than one hundred years, mothers and calves have congregated in the Mississippi Canyon, a large submarine valley that extends south into the ocean from the Mississippi Delta.  Male whales like to range across the northern Gulf, but for mothers and calves the canyon is prime nursing habitat, and they’re not often seen outside of it.  Now their home is encompassed by oil; one young animal has already been found floating dead in the water (a rare find); and the government is launching a special research cruise to find out what is happening to them and to another small, imperiled population of whales to their east.

NRDC has been working over the past weeks to improve the science essential to helping the population recover.  But we are also seeking to reverse the oil-mad policies that led to this mess in the first place and that continue to doom the sperm whales and every other species in the industrialized Gulf.

One policy that must be changed is the government’s astonishing disregard of its own wildlife laws.  Each year the Interior Department approves hundreds of drilling plans and exploration permits for the northern Gulf without taking step one to comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.  These laws are important because they require the government and industry to take every practicable measure to reduce harm to wildlife.  In the Mississippi Canyon, this could well have meant capping the sperm whales’ exposure to seismic blasting and taking additional precautions against the risk of an oil spill in their nursery.     

This week, we filed the first of several lawsuits to restore the rule of wildlife law in the region.  We began by challenging the government’s free-wheeling approach to seismic surveys—what my colleague Cynthia Sarthou, from the Gulf Restoration Network, calls “Exhibit B in how the Gulf of Mexico is suffering from the abuses of the oil industry.” 

To search for deep deposits of oil, industry trolls the ocean with high-powered airguns that, for weeks and months on end, regularly pound the water with sound louder than virtually any other man-made source save explosives.  These surveys have a vast environmental footprint (see fact sheet here), disrupting feeding, breeding, and communication of some endangered species over literally hundreds of thousands of square miles.  For the Gulf’s sperm whales, they mean less food: even moderate levels of airgun noise appear to seriously compromise the whales' ability to forage.      

Since January, the Interior Department approved nine of these surveys in the same Mississippi Canyon that the sperm whales need for their survival—all without complying in the most fundamental ways with our environmental laws.  It is intolerable to think that the same animals now dying in the massive spill will have to contend in the brave new world that follows with the industry’s constant pounding, without any serious attempt to mitigate the harm.

This must stop.  Look for more to come.