Marine Mammals Celebrate Protections for Arctic and Atlantic

Marine mammals in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans are starting their holiday celebrations a little early this year. President Obama just announced that he is exercising his executive power to permanently ban new offshore drilling in most of the U.S. Arctic Ocean and 31 underwater canyons off the Northeast Coast in the Atlantic Ocean. The withdrawal area includes 115 million acres in the U.S. Arctic Ocean and 3.9 million acres in the Atlantic that span from New England to the Chesapeake Bay.

Best of all, my colleague Niel Lawrence explains why President Obama’s bold gift of permanent protection for these animals is one that won’t be easy for Big Oil and the incoming Trump administration to undo.

Pacific walrus and calf, Chukchi Sea. Photo: USGS

For the Pacific walrus and polar bear—two ice-dependent species already struggling to survive the rapid transformation of their Arctic environment—today’s news is a resounding relief. Pacific walruses can now bring their calves to hunt for clams in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea without having to fear that they’ll be forced to navigate around drill rigs or through toxic oil waste. Polar bears can swim out to their dens on floating ice without fear that they’ll be disrupted by oil industry ice breakers or supply ships. These species could not afford an oil spill in their fragile home.

Credit: Scott Schliebe/USFWS

The Arctic’s belugas are also singing President Obama’s praises today. And I do mean singing. These whales are famous for their wild and wacky mix of noises. Each spring, up to 3,500 beluga whales travel into U.S. Arctic waters to have their babies and shed their winter skin. This year Obama has ensured that annual migration will be a little happier.

Down in the Atlantic, one of the species clapping its flippers today is the deep diving sperm whale. These whales were once hunted to near extinction for the waxy oil inside their heads—a tragic use for what just might be the wisest animal on earth, at least if brain size is any indication. Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal on the planet. And we could learn a lot from these sagacious giants, who live in complex social networks and care for their calves for more than a decade.

Sperm Whale. Credit: NOAA

Sperm whales and highly secretive and sensitive beaked whales circle the deep canyons of the Atlantic, attracted to the rich diversity of life in and alongside these underwater wonders. The Atlantic’s canyons are biodiversity hotspots, home to many different species of coral, fish, squids, octopus, and various sea stars, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. The largest of the 31 canyons protected is Hudson Canyon, which drops more than 10,000 feet, making it deeper than the Grand Canyon, which falls 6,093 feet.

These are unsettling times. We all needed some good news. You can read my colleagues’ blog for more on how today’s announcement confirms that our President has heard us. Obama understands that protecting and preserving our Arctic and Atlantic waters is important, and that we believe in a clean energy future.

Of course, there is more work to be done: the fight to permanently protect the rest of the Atlantic, specifically the Mid and South Atlantic, where critically endangered North Atlantic right whales migrate and breed, from oil and gas exploration and drilling continues. But we will leave that for another day.

Today, I join the walrus, polar bear, beluga, sperm whale, beaked whales, and so many more species when I say with a very full heart – Thank you, President Obama!

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program
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