This Week in Whales: 3,000 Dead Dolphins on Peru's Shores, Oil Exploration to Blame?; Oil Exploration Delayed in Gulf of Mexico to Protect Dolphins; Dolphins in Gulf Suffering from BP Spill...

News in the world of whales this week (or close to it).

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  • In February, I noted that 260 dead dolphins had washed up on beaches near Lima, Peru.  Less than a month and a half later, the number of dead dolphins on Peru’s coast has skyrocketed to 3,000.  At least one expert believes that offshore oil exploration is the most likely cause of the deaths.  According to treehugger, “Peruvian biologist Carlos Yaipen of the Scientific Organization for Conservation of Aquatic Animals says activity from petroleum companies in the nearby waters is to blame in this instance.  Yaipen believes that a controversial technique for detecting oil beneath the seabed, using sonar or acoustic sensing, is leading the death of marine life en masse.”  Mr. Yaipen is probably right.  The oil and gas industry uses arrays of airguns, which are towed behind ships and release intense impulses of compressed air into the water about once every 10 to 12 seconds.   These seismic surveys have a staggering environmental footprint.  A large seismic array can produce sounds with pressures higher than those of virtually any other man-made source besides explosives.  The director of Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program once described these surveys as possibly “the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment.”  Unfortunately for whales and dolphins, airgun surveys last anywhere from weeks to entire seasons, causing animals a range of harm.  Death is a real possibility, which is what may be playing out in Peru.  Of course, if you think the oil and gas industry will ever be held accountable for these deaths, you haven’t been reading my blog too closely. 
  • Rampant seismic exploration without proper protection for whales and dolphins is a global problem.  But there was some good news recently for dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico still suffering from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster:  the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management ordered an exploration company to stop conducting seismic surveys off the Louisiana coast during the dolphin calving season.  I’m surprised to be saying this, but well done BOEM! 
  • If the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (the renamed Minerals Management Service) is trying to make up for its past sins, it’s got a lot more work to do.  A report, commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has found that Gulf dolphins living close to the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster are suffering from serious health problems.  The dolphins are underweight, anemic, and suffer from lung and liver diseases.  Half of the dolphins examined in the study also had low levels of a hormone that regulates metabolism, the immune system, and helps the animals deal with stress.  Good thing BOEM has clamped down on an industry run amok.  Oh, wait, it hasn’t.  While BOEM has taken many steps in the right direction, it still relies too heavily on promises from an industry that should be recognized as having zero credibility.  For example, BOEM continues to rely on industry promises about the efficacy of their blowout containment systems, even though these systems haven’t been tested in operational conditions.  As my colleague David Pettit says, “Table-top exercises are not sufficient unless the table is under 10,000 feet of seawater.” 
  • In other bad news – sorry this week’s been a downer – only six calves were born to North Atlantic right whales this calving season, making it one of the worst calving seasons in a decade.  The endangered North Atlantic right whale is fighting for its survival and six calves, one of which already died, is not good news for a species on the brink.  A potential food shortage in the Bay of Fundy in 2010 may be the culprit if the shortage didn’t prepare the female whales for the year-long gestation period.  Hopefully this is just a one year decline.

Meanwhile, this week in Wales…

A salvage crew has begun work to remove a stricken cargo ship on the Welsh coast.  The ship ran aground on April 3.  One of the main objectives of the salvage job will be to remove the ship’s fuel, some of which has leaked out.  Pummeled by gale force winds and five meter swells, the crew were dramatically rescued by the Royal Navy and RAF helicopters.