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Researchers Worry Right Whales Could Be Harmed During Seismic Testing


The Trump administration wants to expand oil and gas drilling offshore. It's given a preliminary go-ahead for companies to carry out seismic testing to see what's down there. But what do those sound waves do to ocean life? Here's Craig LeMoult of member station WGBH.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Researcher Stormy Mayo searches the water from inside the cabin of a 44-foot boat. The radio crackles. And it gets a message from a spotter plane overhead.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have about eight individual right whales, scattered about, going on long dives...

LEMOULT: Mayo's with the Center for Coastal Studies on the tip of Cape Cod. And much of his work focuses on the North Atlantic right whale.

STORMY MAYO: A population that numbers, probably, in the vicinity of 410 animals left. And the most troubling part of the story is that their numbers appear to be declining.

LEMOULT: As he talks, he keeps his eye on the water.

MAYO: There's something over there - way over there. See, yeah. There's a spout. Yeah.

LEMOULT: The boat heads in that direction. And then there it is. A right whale, about as big as the boat, floats to the surface and exhales.


LEMOULT: Mayo says the greatest threats to right whales are ship strikes and entanglements in fishing lines. But he's increasingly worried about the oil and gas industry's desire to see what's under the Atlantic seafloor. In November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reversed an Obama administration decision. It permitted five companies to use sound waves to explore for oil and gas between Delaware and Florida.

MAYO: Is seismic testing something that is likely safe? I don't think many of us believe that. We think seismic testing is damaging not just to whales but to much of the marine ecosystem.

LEMOULT: Chris Clark of Cornell University says seismic exploration is based on a very simple principle.

CHRIS CLARK: You make a very loud sound. And the sound energy travels through the water and enters the Earth's crust and then reflects off of things in the Earth's crust.

LEMOULT: That incredibly loud sound comes from an air cannon that goes off continually about every 10 seconds. Clark has recorded those blasts underwater.


LEMOULT: Clark worries seismic blasts could disrupt the basic activities of whales and a range of other marine life.

CLARK: Navigating, finding food, finding mates, detecting predators, maintaining social networks - all of this is done through sound, not through sight.


LEMOULT: Gail Adams of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors says seismic testing is used without negative impacts for research and in the development of offshore wind. And she says they make an effort to avoid whales.

GAIL ADAMS: We have people onboard the vessels that check for the presence of marine mammals and other marine species within a specified exclusion zone, that make sure that the area is free before we begin our operations. We have passive acoustic monitoring onboard that listens for the vocalization of marine mammals.

LEMOULT: And they consider migration patterns and breeding times. Scott Kraus, a right whale expert at the New England Aquarium, says that's not enough. He testified at a congressional hearing on the subject last month.


SCOTT KRAUS: The mitigation strategies employed by - for all of these seismic activities are a little bit of a lipstick on a pig. That is to say they will prevent immediate mortality if a whale gets so close that it's going to get blown up.

LEMOULT: But he says they won't do anything to stop the disruption from the sound that can travel for hundreds of miles.


LEMOULT: Coalition of environmental groups and attorneys general from nine states have filed suit to stop seismic testing. So it may ultimately be up to the courts to determine what the ocean sounds like. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.