House Preparing to Sacrifice Right Whales for Big Oil

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.

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

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.

Save the MMPA!

About the Authors

Francine Kershaw

Senior Scientist, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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