In yet another giveaway on its way out the door, the Trump administration is allowing oil companies to continue conducting seismic testing to search for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, despite overwhelming evidence that it threatens whales and other marine life.
Seismic testing is the use of incredibly loud blasts of noise to find oil hidden deep beneath the ocean floor. By repeatedly bouncing sound waves off of the seafloor and measuring the echoes, oil companies can map the density of geological formations far below, thus revealing potential deposits of fossil fuels.
The technique has been proven to harm all kinds of sea life, but particularly marine mammals, such as whales. In their world of often limited light, sound is the most important sense. Whales rely on their hearing to forage for food, find mates, and care for their young. By drowning out other sounds in the area, and by startling animals that are unaccustomed to overwhelmingly loud noises occurring every few seconds, seismic testing can confuse whales, drive them away from their natural habitat, and disrupt essential behaviors, like feeding. It is the whale equivalent of shining a spotlight in a human’s face, except the blasting can go on year-round.
Seismic testing can also kill fish outright, inhibit the immune systems of shellfish, and cause mass mortality among zooplankton, which form the base of the ocean food chain. And its effects on whales are deeply worrying. When seismic testing was proposed for the East Coast, dozens of scientists wrote to President Trump, expressing concern that the activity would help drive the North Atlantic right whale to extinction.
The Gulf of Mexico whale, a subspecies of the Bryde’s whale (pronounced BROO-dus), is one of the most endangered marine mammals on earth, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining. After a petition and litigation from NRDC, the species was finally placed on the Endangered Species List in 2019. The Trump administration has missed several deadlines to improve protection of the Gulf of Mexico whale. The Endangered Species Act required the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to have designated critical habitat for the whale’s survival over a year ago. Instead, the Trump administration is now green-lighting more of the very seismic testing that threatens the animal’s continued existence in some of its most important habitats.