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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Breaking news: U.S. House rejects amendment threatening protections for whales, dolphins

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

The U.S. House has just voted 259 to 160 to reject a bad amendment that would have placed some of America’s most critically endangered marine mammals at even greater risk for their lives while making it easier for oil and gas interests to conduct offshore development activities.

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The amendment offered by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., would have eviscerated core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to fast-track approval of seismic gun surveys done for offshore oil and gas development. Currently, under the Act, which has provided protections to marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions, since 1972, anyone who seeks to proceed with an activity that can cause the harassment, hunting, capture or killing of marine mammals in U.S. waters needs to apply for an “incidental take permit.”

There are good reasons for such safeguards. Seismic gun surveys send deafening pulses of sound to the ocean floor which bounce back up to be analyzed for signs of oil and gas deposits on the ocean floor. These are intense blasts of sound, which occur every four to six seconds for hours at a time and for days, weeks, or months on end, and they disturb feeding, breeding, and other behaviors among whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. They’ve even caused deaths of animals.

Rep. Johnson’s amendment would have provided an automatic approval process for such permits if the National Marine Fisheries Service didn’t issue a permit “fast enough.” It would also have allowed those with incidental take permits to harm more whales and dolphins, in a much larger area of the ocean. Additionally, it would have limited the NMFS’s ability to take into account any potential cumulative impacts that might threaten marine mammals, such as from multiple surveys in the same area.

Had the amendment gone through, it would have been particularly dangerous for North Atlantic right whales, already critically endangered, with less than 400 surviving along the U.S. and Canadian coast. Allowing more seismic gun surveys in their habitat could be devastating to this species.

We applaud House members for rightly rejecting this insidious amendment. This is a clear signal to Rep. Johnson and the oil and gas interests that Americans believe in the protection of precious marine wildlife and won’t sacrifice their interests so lightly.

Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

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