Marine Mammals Illegally Ignored When Gulf Drilling Authorized: Lawsuit

SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 14, 2010 (ENS) – The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity alleges that more than 400 oil exploration and drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico have been illegally approved by the Obama administration because permits to harm endangered whales were not sought or granted.

Today, the center filed a formal 60-day notice of intent to sue Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and the Minerals Management Service, the branch of the Interior Department responsible for managing offshore oil activities, for disregarding marine mammal protection laws when authorizing the offshore drilling operations.

Since Salazar took office in January 2009, the Department of the Interior has approved three lease sales, more than 100 seismic surveys, and more than 300 drilling operations without the permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act that are designed to protect endangered whales and other marine mammals, according to the center’s legally required notice of intent to sue.

“Under Salazar’s watch, the Department of the Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice area where laws are ignored and wildlife protection takes a backseat to oil company profits,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the center.

A sperm whale in the Gulf of Mexico (Photo courtesy NOAA)

There are 28 different species of marine mammals known to swim in the Gulf of Mexico. Six of the whale species are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act – sperm, sei, fin, blue, humpback and North Atlantic right whales.

Of these six endangered whale species, only sperm whales are considered to commonly occur. There is a resident population of female sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico, and whales with calves are sighted frequently, according to the NOAA Fisheries Service Southeast Regional Office Protected Resources Division.

Bryde’s whales (pronounced BREW-days) are the only baleen whales that regularly inhabit the Gulf of Mexico.

All marine mammals in U.S. waters are protected from injury or harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act regardless of whether they are endangered or threatened.

Seismic exploration surveys, which are used by oil companies to search for oil, generate sounds loud enough to cause hearing loss in marine mammals, can disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding, and mask communications between individual whales and dolphins, the center points out.

A single seismic survey carried out by scientists in the Gulf in 2007 was estimated to expose more than 3,000 whales and dolphins to dangerous sounds, according to a statement issued by the center announcing the intent to sue.

More than 100 such surveys by the industry have been approved by Salazar, all without any authorization to harm or harass marine mammals, the center says.

Similarly, noise from drilling operations can displace whales from important feeding areas, the center says, and cites a host of dangers to marine mammals brought on by offshore oil exploration – pollution, vessel strikes, marine debris, and oil spills.

“While certain adverse impacts on whales and dolphins are unavoidable if offshore oil development is allowed, mitigation measures that would be required if Interior complied with the law, such as seasonal limitations on seismic surveys during times of the year when endangered whales are present, could greatly reduce impacts on the species,” the center says.

“The Department of the Interior is well aware of its obligations under the law, as well of the harm to endangered whales that can occur from oil industry operations, yet it has simply decided it cannot be bothered,” said Sakashita. “You or I have to follow the law, but Interior Secretary Salazar seems to think that he and the oil companies he is supposedly overseeing do not. That is unacceptable.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act prohibit private entities, such as oil companies, as well as federal agencies, such as the Minerals Management Service, from killing, harming, or harassing marine mammals, unless they have received authorizations and take measures to minimize the impacts of their activities.

The Endangered Species Act protects species such as the sperm whale, which is listed as endangered, while the Marine Mammal Protection Act applies to all marine mammals, such as the bottlenose dolphin and the Florida manatee.

There are an estimated 75,000 dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. Wildlife officials are probing the deaths of six dolphins on the Gulf coast to determine whether or not that are related to the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill. A spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service said the dolphin carcasses had been found in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama since May 2. Samples of their tissues have been sent for testing.

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