Shell’s U.S. Arctic Drilling Will Harass Thousands of Whales and Seals
Royal Dutch Shell’s plans for exploratory drilling in the US Arctic this summer will involve the harassment of whales and seals by the thousands, an application document filed by Shell to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reveals.
Most notably, Shell estimates its Arctic activities will expose more than 2,500 bowhead whales, more than 2,500 gray whales and more than 50,000 ringed seals to continuous sounds and pulsed sounds, deemed damaging enough to constitute harassment.
The bowhead whale is listed under the US Endangered Species Act. By Shell’s own estimate, 13% of the overall population of bowhead whales still alive are potentially harassed.
The number of gray whales potentially harassed also constitutes 13% of the overall population, while the number of ringed seals potentially harassed amounts to 16%. Under the ESA, the ringed seal is classified as threatened.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the government may allow for the “taking” or “harassment” of marine mammals, so long as the number taken is small and the impact on the species negligible.
But environmental groups argue the numbers affected by the Shell plans are not small, nor will the impact on species be negligible.
“The authorization that they [Shell] are seeking is a request to be able to harass that amount of animals. Shell has asked the government to authorize the taking of that amount of animals,” said Christopher Krenz, a scientist and Arctic campaign manager with Oceana.
As defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, “harassment” refers to the pursuit, torment or annoyance of mammals, with the potential for injury, or with the potential for disturbing behavioral patterns including breathing, migrating, breeding, feeding, nursing or sheltering.
For whales, one of the biggest causes for concern is their hearing. Exploratory drilling, seismic testing and ice-breaking activities may expose whales to damaging sounds.
“If the noises happen and whales are caught within that zone, it can cause hearing damage,” Krenz said. “These whales talk to each other. Scientists think that it is very important for cows and calves to call out to each other as they migrate.”
With damaged hearing, bowhead whales would stop making such calls, something that could be lethal in the short or long term.
“Whales communicate through acoustic signals,” said Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace. “A deaf whale is a dead whale,” he added, referring to a study by Oceana from 2013.
Shell has argued it will monitor areas where loud and potentially damaging activities will be taking place and halt activities if whales are spotted within close vicinities. It has also argued that most of the whales will avoid the areas, thereby limiting any potential impact.
Modified migration patterns may not necessarily be a reassuring development.
“We have got to look at it from the context of the normal behavior of these animals,” Donaghy said. “It might not mean the death of them, but if they avoid their preferred areas for feeding, for breeding, that means fewer animals may be born, fewer animals may survive.”
Krenz said the cumulative impact of exploratory drilling, seismic testing and ice-breaking activities in the US Arctic on marine mammals, though not yet fully known, should be taken into account by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
He warned that the governmental agency had “not been on the side of caution” when it came to issuing permits in the past.
Arnold Brower Jr., executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, said subsistence whale hunting was “vitally important for our Arctic globes community”.
“We don’t have agricultural farming. We rely heavily on marine mammals to eat, this is our homegrown renewable resource,” he said.
But Brower said he was partially reassured that Shell would not be drilling during the spring hunting season, even if Shell operations would overlap with the fall migration routes of the whales.
Above all, the possibility of an oil spill had been of main concern, he said.
“That has been troubling our minds,” he said. “We really desire to see reassurance that this will not happen.”
The application for incidental harassment authorization for the non-lethal taking of whales and seals is one of the last permits Shell still needs to obtain before being formally allowed back into the Arctic.
On May 11, the Obama administration gave the effective go-ahead when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved Shell’s Exploration Plan for the Chuckchi Sea. Environmental groups described the move as reckless, and one that would likely lead to ecological disaster.
According to a study undertaken by the government itself and released this year, the likelihood of one or more spills occurring in the Arctic over the next 77 years if drilling for oil were to take place is as high as 75 percent.
Earlier this week, a dozen organizations filed a lawsuit in the ninth circuit court of appeals, challenging the approval of Shell’s US Arctic exploration plan.
If the authorization for harassment is rejected by the NMFS, Shell will not be allowed into the Arctic this summer.