Yesterday (6/20/13) the Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”), Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity (“CBD”), and the Gulf Restoration Network (“GRN”) reached a landmark legal settlement that will pave the way for a quieter Gulf of Mexico. Acoustic harassment from deafening air-guns is a serious problem for vulnerable marine mammal populations in the Gulf. Producing a sound blast louder than almost any other man-made activity, save explosive devices, air-guns are used by industry to search for oil deposits beneath the sea floor. After this settlement, protections will be in place to lessen the potential impact caused by these devices.
Whales usually are protected from this kind of acoustic harassment, because normally it would require approval under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to proceed. However, the federal government had been letting these surveys go unchecked until now. Initiated back in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, this litigation was aimed at protecting whales and dolphins that are already trying to recover from one environmental catastrophe. The settlement protects whales and dolphins in several ways. It requires that:
• Additional protections be put in place while the government undertakes a programmatic review of the seismic exploration being done in the Gulf;
• A prohibition to be put in place around biologically sensitive areas including DeSoto Canyon, a crucial piece of habitat for both sperm whales and Bryde’s whales;
• A prohibition to be put in place in coastal waters during the primary calving season for bottlenose dolphins;
• Mandatory minimum separation distances between surveys;
• Extension of the government’s existing mitigation measures to the entire Gulf, and also include manatees as well;
• Mandatory use of passive acoustic listening devices to help detect marine mammals present in the area;
• A multi-year research and development project, which is to be undertaken by industry, and which requires them to develop an alternative to air-guns, known as marine vibroseis, that could substantially reduce the giant environmental impact created by these seismic surveys; AND
• A Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (“BOEM”) evaluation of the new standards to ensure that air-gun surveys are not necessarily duplicative and that they will generate the least possible sound for any given project.
As an environmental law student, who hopes to one day make a career out of advocating for the whales and dolphins that grace our oceans, I know how much of an uphill climb environmental law can feel like. However, it is landmark decisions and settlements like this one that give me a renewed sense of drive and determination about a future in environmental advocacy. It is an all-important reminder that the legal system can work for all of us, including whales, and can one day help lead to a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.
Here is a graphic that I find rings true …