“Twenty-six years after th
As Whales Struggle Worldwide, NRDC Fights on Num Global Campaign Targets Military Sonar, Oil and Gas Exploration, and Illegal Hunting
Humpback with killer whales © Hiroya Minakuchi/Minden Pictures; airgun blast © Warner Bros./Getty Images; airgun array © British Antarctic Survey/Science Photo Library; belugas © Doug Allan/Nature Picture Library; beaked whales © Vidal Martin Martel; humpback and calf © James D. Watt/SeaPics.com; fin whale © Ragnar Axelsson/Greenpeace; garibaldi © Mark Conlin/SeaPics.com
round the world, whales are once again in peril. The advent of steam-powered ships and other invasive technologies during the 19th and 20th centuries meant cata strophic declines in whale populations as many species were hunted to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, an international ban on commercial whaling in 1986 began reversing those declines. But today, even as many of the earth’s whale species struggle to recover from a grim legacy of overhunting, they face a host of latter-day threats to their survival, and for NRDC that has meant engaging in a sustained, multifaceted campaign to protect them.
The U.S. Navy estimates that its plan for using explosives and high-powered sonar during training and testing in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans over the course of five years will harm marine mammals more than 30 million times, causing more than 15,000 cases of permanent hearing loss, almost 9,000 lung injuries and more than 1,800 deaths. “There is simply no other word for this than carnage,” says
of comments to the Obama Administration opposing the Navy’s latest and most dangerous plan. Yet the military isn’t alone in bombarding the oceans with deadly levels of noise pollution. Energy companies often use seismic surveys to hunt for oil and gas deposits, their ships trailing airguns that emit deafening blasts. “If you can imagine dynamite going off right outside your house for 10 to 12 hours a day, sometimes every 10 seconds — that’s the kind of excruciating noise we’re talking about,” says Taryn Kiekow, also an attorney with NRDC’s marine mammal program.
Of vital concern is the fate of one of the most endangered whale species on earth: Alaska’s Cook Inlet beluga. Only 284 of these snowy-white whales “Twenty-six years after the cling to survival. Even so, NMFS whaling ban, many species recently gave the go-ahead to the Fourteen beaked whales died in the Canary remain at a scant fraction of Islands after a sonar exercise in 2002. Apache Alaska Corporation to ply the what they once were,” says Joel Reynolds, director of NRDC’s Zak Smith, an attorney with NRDC’s waters of Cook Inlet with airguns and other seismic devices for the next Marine Mammal Protection Project. Marine Mammal Protection Project. three to five years. The agency’s own For nearly two decades the project “The Navy concedes the staggering scientists estimate such an assault will has been fighting threats to fragile risks but is not putting appropriate whale populations around the world: safeguards in place, such as placing the harm no fewer than 30 whales in the stopping industrial exploitation of the most critical whale habitats off-limits.” first year alone. “The agency should be protecting this imperiled species, last untouched gray whale nursery, While the National Marine Fisheries not placing it in harm’s way,” says reining in deafening sonar and other Service (NMFS) is supposed to ensure Kiekow, noting that it was only four noise pollution, and pressing for tough that the Navy’s plan does not violate years ago that sanctions against countries that violate environmental law and harm marine NMFS listed the commercial whaling ban. mammals, it has often fallen upon the Cook Of all the extraordinary adaptations NRDC to step in when the agency Inlet beluga as whales possess, perhaps few are as has simply rubber-stamped the Navy’s endangered, impressive as their ability to navigate proposals. Indeed, we their ocean environment using sound. have successfully sued Because sound travels far better than to limit deployment of light under water, whales have evolved some dangerous types to “see” with their sense of hearing. of sonar and forced the They use sound for just about every Navy to adopt commonvital activity, such as finding food and sense precautionary Iceland has killed mates, which is why today’s unprece measures. This past hundreds of endangered dented assault on the whales’ acoustic summer, our Members fin whales in defiance of Humpback mother and calf. environment is so alarming. sent tens of thousands an international ban.
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