E&E: Right whales migrate through Va. waters proposed for surveys — study

http://www.eenews.net/eenewspm/2013/12/19/stories/1059992149 (Online) Climate & Energy

Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, December 19, 2013

New research from Cornell University suggests endangered right whales migrate farther from Virginia’s shores than previously thought, putting them in danger of proposed oil and gas exploration in the mid-Atlantic, according to environmental groups.

The research from Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program shows right whales migrate far beyond the seasonal protections the Interior Department is considering in its oil and gas seismic survey plan.

The whales were also detected year-round, surprising the researchers who set up recording units 16, 30, 38, 48 and 63 nautical miles from shore.

“These endangered right whales would be afforded little to no protection from ship strikes or the acoustic threats of high-energy seismic airgun surveys,” said a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell earlier this month from Oceana and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which funded the Cornell research.

The groups said the new research means Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management should scrap its current programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS), a sweeping plan set to be finalized early next year that would open federal waters from Delaware to Florida to oil and gas surveys.

The surveys, which involve loud blasts from air guns towed behind ships for day, weeks or months at a time, are considered harmful to whales and an array of other marine life.

They’re a crucial prerequisite for drilling, which is still currently banned in the Atlantic Ocean.

Right whales are estimated to number less than 500.

BOEM is contemplating a suite of mitigation measures for marine wildlife in its PEIS, including time and area closures, requiring wildlife observers and acoustic monitoring to reduce impacts to whales and establishing buffer zones between seismic tests (Greenwire, Aug. 9, 2012).

According to BOEM, time-area closures in certain coastal regions are expected to reduce incidental take of right whales by two-thirds. In a worst-case scenario, up to two of the animals could be injured by seismic surveys annually and as many as 476 instances could occur in which the whales could be disturbed from their normal behaviors.

A more restrictive alternative would place a roughly 20-mile buffer along the Atlantic Coast where surveys would be mostly banned from November to April.

But BOEM’s plan relied on flawed assumptions, according to the environmental groups.
While the government study assumed 83 percent of right whale sightings occurred within 20 miles of shore, Cornell found vastly more whales calling beyond the 20-mile buffer.

“By listening off the coast of Virginia, out to the edge of the continental shelf, we were able to hear right whales calling in this area throughout the year,” said Aaron Rice, who directs Cornell’s bioacoustics work. “This year-round pattern is definitely a surprise and raises many new questions about the home range of this species.”

The environmental groups called that information “significant,” arguing that federal law mandates BOEM to at least supplement its PEIS.

BOEM did not indicate whether that would occur.

“BOEM scientists are aware of the research commissioned by Oceana and have considered this type of information in our analysis,” it said in a statement.

Finalization of BOEM’s seismic plans has already been pushed back more than a year to early 2014. The agency first began taking public input for the PEIS in April 2010.

Oil and gas groups and most Republicans are calling on Interior to swiftly finalize its plan so decades-old resource assessments in the Atlantic can be updated. Those assessments will help inform whether President Obama allows future drilling in the Atlantic.

“The delays that we’ve seen so far continue to close the window” in which data would be available to officials writing BOEM’s next five-year leasing plan, Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s director of upstream and industry operations, told reporters in October (E&ENews PM, Oct. 15).

Special thanks to Richard Charter

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