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Oil Companies are Blasting Seismic Air Guns in an Endangered Whale’s Habitat

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In 2021, scientists confirmed the discovery of a new subspecies of whale: the Gulf of Mexico Rice’s whale. Exciting as this news was, scientists also concluded that it is one of the world’s most endangered whales, with likely fewer than 100 individuals remaining.

Unlike other whales, the Rice’s whale stays in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico year-round — an area with heavy oil drilling activity. For these whales, a particularly harmful aspect of offshore drilling is seismic air gun surveys, when oil drilling companies blast sound waves through the ocean to find oil and gas deposits. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed allowing even more air gun surveys in the Gulf of Mexico with minimal protections for marine animals like the Gulf of Mexico whale.

For years, Earthjustice has defended the rights of marine mammals to live without the threat of fossil fuels, and we will continue to fight for them in court.

A new — but endangered — whale:

  • The Gulf of Mexico whale lives throughout the northeastern waters of the Gulf, stretching from the U.S. shores to Mexico, with most concentrated sightings about 60 miles off the coast of Florida. Unlike many whales, they do not make long-distance migrations, but stay in tropical waters year-round.
  • The whales rely on echolocation, or emitting sounds that vibrate off distant objects, to communicate with each other, locate food, avoid predators, and mate.
  • The whales have already suffered from oil industry activity in the Gulf: in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill wiped out one-fifth of the whales’ population.

The problem with seismic blasting:

  • Oil and gas companies use seismic air guns under water to detect pockets of oil and gas in the seafloor. The deafening blasts create sounds waves that can be heard up to 2,500 miles away.
  • Seismic blasts can exceed 235 decibels and could inflict permanent, even fatal hearing damage on these creatures.
  • Without regulation, ships in the Gulf of Mexico blast air guns as often as every 10 seconds for twenty-four hours a day.
  • With less than 100 individuals left, NOAA’s own scientists have found that without sufficient protections, seismic blasting and other harms from oil and gas development threaten the very existence of Rice’s whale.

The opportunity:

  • The Biden administration is preparing new rulemaking on seismic blasting in the Gulf of Mexico that will last for five years.
  • Now is a chance to get things right. The day before President Trump left office, his administration announced a rule that allowed seismic blasting to continue in the Gulf of Mexico without adequately protecting marine mammals.
  • While the Biden administration has a chance to reign in this harmful activity, it has instead proposed a new rule that would once again allow extensive seismic testing in the Gulf of Mexico without the needed safeguards.
  • We are now urging NOAA to withdraw that newly proposed rule. We can’t let marine mammals like the Gulf of Mexico whale become casualties for unnecessary oil and gas exploration.
Rice's whale, photographed from an aerial view in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rice's whale, photographed in the Gulf of Mexico. Rice's whales are members of the baleen whale family Balaenopteridae. With likely fewer than 100 individuals remaining, Rice's whales are one of the most endangered whales in the world. (NOAA)