Endangered orcas now safer from planned seismic survey

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Update: The project was given permission to complete the first leg of their expedition because it is based farther offshore and unlikely to impact the Southern Resident orcas this time of the year.  Researchers are still investigating the best way to proceed in the other areas.
How often does this happen – a major scientific expedition is temporarily halted without court battles or political maneuvering, in order to protect an endangered species?  The answer of course is;  not often.  Yet due to an oversight in the environmental impact statement filed by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty’s Earth Observatory, the research vessel remains at dock while a protocol is established to protect the endangered Southern Resident orcas from the dangerous sound levels produced by the ship’s sonar.
The Orca Network was instrumental in bringing to light that the project to conduct seismic surveys had neglected to thoroughly research the population dynamics of the orcas, and had been given permission to proceed without notification of the local agencies.  In a letter of concern, they wrote:

It is clear that the best available science on Southern Resident seasonality was not used by NMFS staff conducting the Section 7 consultation under ESA and reviewing Lamont-Doherty’s take application under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). According to Kellie Foster-Taylor, the NOAA biologist who conducted the Section 7 consultation, the Southern Residents were assumed to remain in inland waters during the project period and therefore were not considered further in the consultation or in the MMPA authorization process. That assumption is simply incorrect. In early summer Southern Residents will typically spend a few days in inland waters, then head out to the coast where salmon are more plentiful. We expect they will be present off the coast during the seismic survey timeframe. We’ve had reports of members of all three pods in the inland waters this weekend, but L pod headed out to the coast Sunday afternoon, and Southern Residents can travel 100 miles a day, which could easily put any of the pods within the survey area within 24 – 48 hours.

Concerned individuals called and emailed government officials over the weekend, effectively communicating to officials that people are increasingly intolerant of the free hand that has been given to government and industry to damage ocean life in their quest for information, wring wealth from below the seafloor, or to engage in excessive military practices.
While it may be surprising to learn, for their part the oceanographers on board were probably unaware of the problems and  may not know much at all about whales and dolphins, or about anything much bigger than krill for that matter.  They study ocean dynamics, and theirs is a rigorous major that leaves little room in the curriculum for elective study of the larger marine organisms.  They were doubtless unaware about the potential impact of the seismic survey on the fragile population of orcas that call this area home.
But this is a hugely expensive error, costing the project thousands of dollars a day.  While the ship sits in port it still has to run maintenance and accommodate the beached crew, and their salaries have to be paid.  Worse yet, it is likely that some of the scientists on board may have to scuttle time-sensitive projects if any were planned (in order to optimize cruise time, several science projects usually piggyback onto each other).
The upside of all this is that this mistake is unlikely to be repeated, and it is another demonstration that alternatives to the sonic pollution of the oceans need to be found.
And honestly, it is heartening  to have witnessed both the response of concerned individuals, and the quick response by government officials and the researchers in this situation, instead of the usual battles.  Much credit goes to Susan Berta, of Orca Network, for her dedication and tact in bringing the oversight to the attention of the appropriate officials in the nick of time and thereby preventing what could have been a devastating event for the endangered Southern Resident orcas. Kudos, Susan!

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