House Tackles Threat to Endangered Whale From Seismic Testing

WASHINGTON (CN) – Firing an airhorn in the House chamber, Representative Joe Cunningham confronted a fishing official for the government Thursday on his testimony that underwater seismic testing is nonlethal to whales.

A North Atlantic right whale breaks the ocean surface off Provincetown, Mass., in Cape Cod Bay on April 10, 2008. There are thought to be no more than 500 of the giant animals left, and about 2 percent of the population died in just a few months in 2018 during an especially high bout of incidental deaths for the critically endangered species. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

“Was that disruptive, Mr. Oliver?” Cunningham asked.

The demonstration by the South Carolina Democrat came after Chris Oliver, assistant administrator of fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told lawmakers that seismic testing had a negligible impact on the North American right whale, which is already critically endangered.

“These airgun blasts happen every 10 seconds, for hours on end, for weeks on end, to a species that literally calls the ocean home,” said Representative Joe Neguse, a Colorado Democrat. “I don’t think that’s a negligible impact.”

Cunningham meanwhile argued that the sound from his airgun is 16,000 times softer than the noise produced by seismic airguns, which energy companies use to survey the seabed for oil and gas caches.

Cornell University biologist Chris Clark told lawmakers that the constant and intense disturbance of the blasts can disrupt communication between mothers and calves, and even separate them over time. 

“The most critical impacts are chronic, not acute,” Clark said, explaining that these types of whales use soft communication tactics for raising young, foraging and migration that rely on quiet ocean surroundings. 

In defense of the testing, the committee heard Thursday from Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow for the libertarian Heartland Institute.

Burnett called energy a “fundamental building block of modern society,” and stressed that public and private sector leaders can’t make decisions about America’s future in oil and gas production without relevant data from underwater surveys.

Republicans also argued at the hearing that seismic testing is not as big a threat to the Earth’s 500 remaining right whales as natural events or boat collisions.

To this end, Oliver at the NOAA testified that the government has made strides in curbing entanglements and collisions by restricting boat speeds and imposing tighter regulations on fishing equipment.

Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, elicited some laughs from the hearing crowd when he joked that the pregnant staffer sitting next to him felt her baby immediately start kicking when Cunningham sounded the horn.

“Perhaps a data point for you to consider,” the congressman joked.

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