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Georgia’s endangered marine mammal to get relief from planned halt of offshore oil exploration

An adult right whale and a juvenile off Georgia's coast (Sea to Shore Alliance_NOAA permit 20556)

The fate of right whales was at risk during oil exploration because of consequences of sonic testing. Georgia’s offshore waters are a calving ground for the Georgia’s marine mammal. File/Credit: Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA permit 20556

By David Pendered

The second dead right whale of the year was reported last week, and by coincidence it was spotted the same day the U.S. House voted to block the expansion of offshore oil drilling in waters of Georgia and most of the rest of the nation. Offshore oil drilling activities are a hazard to endangered right whales and to other sea life, according to the federal government.

An adult right whale and a juvenile off Georgia's coast (Sea to Shore Alliance_NOAA permit 20556)

An adult right whale and a juvenile swim off Georgia’s coast. The species has been listed as endangered since 1970. Only an estimated 411 of this most-endangered whale species remain, according to NOAA. File/Credit: Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA permit 20556

The right whale is Georgia’s state marine mammal. Just 411 right whales were thought to survive worldwide, and that was before the two deaths were reported. A federal ruling acknowledged putting them at risk in order to explore for oil beneath the seabed.

Eleven of the 70 dead whales discovered between 2003 and 2018 were found off the coasts of Georgia and Florida, according to a report released June 20 in the journal, Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. Many died after they were stuck by a vessel, struck by propellers, or entangled in fishing gear, the report showed.

The bipartisan votes to block offshore oil extraction are significant for both the endangered right whales and for Georgia, according to Paulita Bennett-Martin, Georgia campaign organizer for Oceana, a global advocacy organization.

“These votes were a huge show of bipartisan opposition to the dangers of offshore drilling and seismic testing,” Bennett-Martin said in an email. “Congress has blocked offshore drilling for decades, through appropriation packages. We are working hard to ensure Congress enact offshore drilling moratoriums again to protect us from President Trump’s aggressive push to open up most of the United States waters to offshore drilling.

“Protecting our coast in Georgia, and all of the Atlantic, means we can protect the destiny of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whales,” Bennett-Martin. “They are our state marine mammal, and come to our waters every year to have their calves.

Any offshore drilling or seismic testing is a threat to our fishing and seafood, tourism and recreation, and our Coastal Georgia way of life.”

The House voted for measures that will block offshore drilling activity in the federal fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The measures passed with support from Republicans and Democrats and will be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate as part of the legislation to fund the Department of the Interior.

According to a report by congress.gov, the amendments to an overarching funding bills that address offshore drilling include:

A number of right whales have been found dead off the coast of the Georgia/Alabama border, including some who were struck by vessels, according to Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. Credit: Diseases of Aquatic Organisms.

  • House Amendment 432: “To prohibit any funds from being expended by the Department of the Interior to conduct oil and gas pre-leasing, leasing, and related activities in outer continental shelf planning areas around Florida.” Sponsor: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fl).
  • House Amendment 450: “To prohibit the use of funds for use by BOEM [Bureau of Ocean Energy Management} to issue permits for oil and gas exploration, including for seismic airgun blasting, in the Atlantic.” Sponsor: Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.)

If the measures clear the Senate, their prospects at the White House remain unclear. President Trump has endorsed plans for an expansive drilling program in U.S. waters. However, the plans have been waylaid by a federal judge whose ruling blocked Arctic drilling in Alaska.

Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in April that the president’s expansion plan is on indefinite hold following the court order and expected appeal, according to a report by wsj.com.

Meantime, a House committee last week approved two stand-alone measures related to offshore drilling, according to reports in congress.gov:

  • House Resolution 1941: “To amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to prohibit the Secretary of the Interior including in any leasing program certain planning areas, and for other purposes.” Sponsored by Cunningham and the only co-sponsor from Georgia was Rep. Hank Johnson.
  • HR 205: ‘This bill permanently extends the moratorium on oil and gas leasing, preleasing, and related activities in certain areas of the Gulf of Mexico.” Sponsored by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fl.) with no Georgia co-sponsors.

The two dead whales join 70 others, which were recorded between Florida and the Gulf of St. Lawrence between 2003 and 2018, according to the journal, Diseases of Aquatic Organisms.

The two dead right whales were spotted this month in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. The gulf is located between the tourist destinations of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. The gulf is the seaway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

The first dead right whale of the year was found June 4, floating off the peninsula where the gulf turns southwest toward Quebec, according to a report by theguardian.pe.ca, based on Prince Edward Island.

The second dead right whale of 2019 was reported June 20, floating in Canadian waters just inside the entrance from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, according to the news report. The site is nearly 200 southeast of the location where the first dead animal was spotted, according to the report.



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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