Lawsuit Launched to Protect Endangered Whales From Gulf of Mexico Oil Exploration

DOI flouting marine mammal laws in rush to permit oil and gas surveys


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 221


Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5308


Michael Jasny, Natural Resources Defense Council, (604) 736-9386


Cynthia Sarthou, Gulf Restoration Network, (504) 525-1528, ext. 202

The Center for Biological Diversity, Gulf Restoration Network, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club filed a formal notice of intent to sue Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Wednesday for ignoring marine mammal protection laws when approving offshore oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico.

The suit will challenge 10 projects approved since Oct. 15, 2010, without permits required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act that are designed to protect endangered whales and other marine mammals from harmful offshore oil activities. The 60-day notice of intent to sue is a legally required precursor to filing a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act.

“Under Salazar’s watch, the Department of the Interior has treated the Gulf of Mexico as a sacrifice zone where laws are disregarded and wildlife protection takes a backseat to oil-company profits,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center. “Even after the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the feds are still violating the laws intended to protect the Gulf’s wildlife in their rush to approve offshore oil activities.”

Seismic exploration surveys, 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. Seismic surveys are nearly as loud as explosives, and can displace whales from important feeding areas. Several types of marine mammals are at risk in the Gulf of Mexico, including endangered sperm whales, manatees and bottlenose dolphins.

“Seismic surveys have a vast environmental footprint, disrupting feeding and breeding of wildlife over great distances,” said Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst at NRDC. “It is intolerable to think that the same species threatened by the Gulf spill will have to contend with the industry’s constant pounding, without any serious attempt to mitigate the harm.”

“For the 15 years that we have asked the Department of the Interior to protect marine mammals in the Gulf, the agency has denied that oil and gas activity would have any significant impact on Gulf marine mammal populations,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “The BP drilling disaster proved that the agency was wrong. It’s time they stop putting the profits of the oil industry above the protection of the Gulf’s whales, dolphins, endangered turtles and other protected wildlife.”

“The DOI is continuing to approve offshore oil and gas drilling activities despite the known threats to key animals in the Gulf’s ecosystem,” said Khushi Desai, attorney with Earthjustice who is representing Gulf Restoration Network. “Before allowing these operations to move forward the government must provide these animals protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the harm to the Gulf’s marine mammals may be irreparable.”

Dozens of seismic surveys for oil and gas exploration have been permitted by Interior Secretary Salazar in the Gulf each year, all without authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act. These laws prohibit private entities such as oil companies—as well as federal agencies such as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement—from killing, harming or harassing marine mammals unless they have received authorizations and take measures to minimize the impacts of their activities. The federal government has knowingly disregarded these laws, which could impose restrictions on seismic activities to protect endangered whales when they are present.

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