Groups ask court to block Trump-issued permits to harm thousands of Atlantic marine creatures

right whales
Right whales. NOAA photo

Saying that the Trump administration’s approval for five corporations to conduct loud underwater blasting to find oil and gas along the Atlantic seaboard will “irreparably harm marine species from tiny zooplankton … to the great whales,” environmental groups went to federal court today seeking an injunction to stop the permits.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized one company to harm more than 50,000 dolphins and another company to harm 20,000 more, the groups say. The blasts are as loud as a jet engine and happen every 10 seconds for months at a time. Underwater, they can be heard up to 2,500 miles from the source, the nonprofit Oceana reports – the distance of a flight from New York to Los Angeles. The blasts can indicate the presence of oil, but the companies still have to put in exploratory rigs – like the BP Deepwater Horizon that blew up and slimed the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The federal government estimates that the blasting will cause more than 373,000 instances of harm to marine mammals, according to a press release from Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh. Frosh is among 10 state attorneys general along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to South Carolina which sued to stop the blasting.

Florida has not joined the legal fight, even though one of the rarest creatures on Earth, the endangered North American right whale, gives birth off Cape Canaveral. Only about 400 of the whales exist, with only about 100 breeding females. The Florida coast is their only known breeding ground.

As the Phoenix reported, studies around the world reveal that air gun blasts can kill scallops and other shellfish, make sea turtles erratic, wipe out whales’ ability to find mates, vocalize and navigate, and wreck the organs that help sea life keep their balance in shifting currents. Giant squid who live deep in the sea have washed up dead in air gun blasting zones with damage to their sensory systems.  Not only that, the blasting harms commercial fishing: one study showed 40-80 percent reduced catch rates in Atlantic cod, haddock, rockfish, herring, sand eel and blue whiting.

The National Marine Fisheries Service issued official Incidental Harassment Authorizations in late November, which allow the private companies to harm or kill marine life with the underwater blasting . The Obama administration previously denied permits for companies to conduct the air gun blasting, saying the benefit did not outweigh the cost to marine life. The Trump administration reversed that position.

The groups filed their motion Wednesday for a preliminary injunction in federal court in Charleston, South Carolina. It argues that the Trump administration’s approval to let petroleum companies harm ocean animals violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

In their legal filing the groups argue “that blasting ships would ‘concentrate their fire’ on the world’s densest population of acoustically sensitive beaked whales off North Carolina’s Outer Banks.”

The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice is representing Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation in the legal action. The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, North Carolina Coastal Federation, and One Hundred Miles. Other groups suing include Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, and Defenders of Wildlife. Sixteen South Carolina coastal communities and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce are also suing. More on that legal action here.

Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.

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