NOAA Political Officials Sidelined the Science on How to Protect an Endangered Whale Species

Published Mar 23, 2020

What happened: When reviewing a scientific report that assessed the impacts of oil and gas survey activities on an endangered whale species, political officials at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) removed recommendations that were based on the best available science to protect the whale species.

Why it matters: Once an endangered species goes extinct, it is gone forever. Science-based methodologies are fundamental to the process of how the federal government protects endangered species. Political officials who sideline the science in a major scientific report are elevating political and corporate considerations over the ability to use science-based decisionmaking to protect endangered species.

A political team at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) modified an important scientific report such that it was not in the line with the best available science on how to protect an endangered whale species, the North Atlantic right whale, from intense air gun blasts that are used to scout the ocean floor for oil and gas deposits. Oil and gas survey activities of the ocean are conducted by air guns; these air guns are well documented to cause harm to whales and dolphins since they mask the calls that the animals use to find food and mates and, at close range, can irreparably damage a whale’s hearing (experts say it is similar to the sound of a hand grenade exploding within earshot).

NOAA scientists had determined that the proposed survey operations were far too close to the area where the whales migrate and give birth, and therefore recommended increased distances between the survey activities and the whales. However, political officials at NOAA made what they called “two minor changes” which dramatically shrunk the distances between survey activities and the locations of the endangered whales. The report, which was finalized in November 2018, kept in these political changes. Two days later, NOAA’s Fisheries announced that it would open up the area for companies to conduct seismic survey operations that “incidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals.”

The modified report was a biological assessment, an important study that is often used as the basis for decisionmaking around endangered or threatened species. When drafting the report, NOAA scientists had determined that the current standard of banning air gun use, 47 kilometers (about 29 miles) away from the shore, was not enough to protect the whales. Peer reviewed research led by an analyst at NOAA’s Fisheries and a draft report for the Navy concluded that North Atlantic right whales were traveling farther from shore than ever before, which would place them directly into the path of proposed survey activities. The scientists therefore recommended that the standard should be increased to ban air gun use 90 kilometers (about 55 miles) away from the shore. Political officials knocked down this requirement, bringing it back to 47 kilometers (29 miles). They also changed the NOAA scientists’ recommendation that survey operations be shut down when a whale is spotted 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away by reducing this requirement to 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles).

Ignoring federal scientists providing evidence-based measures on how best to protect endangered whale species is in violation of two different laws, the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Endangered species are species that are on the brink of extinction and require strong science-based protections so that they can continue to survive. By editing out of the biological assessment certain protections that are based on the best available science, political officials at NOAA prioritized corporate and political concerns over the evidence-based ways to protect a highly endangered whale species.