This is the first in a three-part series on the recent oil-related developments in Canada – and what they mean for New England. You can read the second blog, providing background on the history of oil exploration near the Gulf of Maine and the long-term threats this poses to New England here. The final blog will cover the approval of major increases in oil tanker traffic through the Bay of Fundy and along the coast of the Atlantic.
In New England, witnessing a whale breach the ocean’s surface is an awe-inspiring experience reminding us of the complex and magnificent undersea metropolis that’s just below the surface. Whales – humpback, minke, North Atlantic right whales, and more – are iconic New England marine life. People travel here in droves each year to experience the sight of these majestic creatures, contributing significantly to our coastal economies.
Unfortunately, recent developments by our neighbors to the north put whales and the region’s economy at risk. Earlier this month, Nova Scotia’s government granted final approval to a Norwegian energy company, Statoil, to begin offshore oil exploration just east of Georges Bank, off the coast of the province’s Scotian Shelf. This exploratory lease area is in addition to two others, owned by Shell Canada and BP Canada, which also have permission to begin the process of testing for oil.
While Canada has a moratorium on oil exploration in Georges Bank itself, similar to our own, the country has otherwise aggressively pursued offshore oil and gas development in the Atlantic. These new leases near Georges Bank are too close for comfort.
The Gulf of Maine, and Georges Bank especially, is an ecologically sensitive and biologically rich area. This new oil exploration poses significant and immediate threats to the region’s ecosystems, particularly to marine mammals such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
When drilling occurs, the risks are massive – the worst of which is an oil spill. But even before any drilling occurs, irreversible damage can occur. The first step a company takes in testing for oil is to conduct seismic testing, a process that uses air gun blasts to scan areas for mineral deposits. These blasts must be loud enough to reach the ocean floor, where sensors record and send the data back up to the surface.
During seismic testing, companies run these blasts repeatedly, often 10 seconds apart, 24 hours a day, for many days in a row.
If you can imagine being exposed again and again to an extremely loud, unknown noise for weeks at a time, I think you can understand why this is a problem. As complex creatures who rely on sound waves to communicate, whales are especially at risk.
The noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, causing confusion that could lead whales to abandon habitats and putting them at risk for displacement. The constant noise can also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, disruptions to normal feeding and mating habits, and chronic health problems from increased stress levels – all of which can have a major impact on an already threatened species’ ability to rebound.
All marine life is important to healthy ocean ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine, but the endangered North Atlantic right whale would be the most vulnerable to seismic testing. Only around 500 whales are alive today, putting them at dire risk of extinction. Threatening even one of these whales threatens the entire species at a time when every whale counts.
A Safe Haven
With climate change and overfishing already putting pressure on our ocean habitats, providing a safe haven for North Atlantic right whales – and all of the marine creatures that depend on a healthy ocean – is more important than ever before.
Conservation Law Foundation has long fought to protect our ocean wildlife – including taking fisheries managers to task for failing to protect some of New England’s most iconic groundfish species from near extinction and fighting oil and gas drilling in Georges Bank 30 years ago. Last year, we worked to ensure protections for North Atlantic right whales when Deepwater Wind sought to create the first offshore wind farm in Rhode Island Sound. Working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation, we successfully came to an agreement with the company to limit pre-construction activities for the turbines during seasons when right whales migrate through the area.
Risks posed from oil exploration are real and happening now, we cannot sit passively by while oil interests threaten our coastal economies and endangered species. Unfortunately, the United States cannot stop Canadian oil exploration in nearby waters. But we can send a strong signal to our northern neighbor by permanently protecting critical ocean areas that can serve as a safe haven for threatened species.
Designating the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts as the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monument would send a strong message that these areas are important national and international interests worth protecting.