A sperm whale off the North Carolina coast. Advocates say seismic testing puts marine wildlife - and in turn, the region's tourism industry - at risk. Credit: Marcel Holyoak / Creative Commons

Forty-five miles from Cape Hatteras, the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream converge, creating a diverse environment where sea turtles, myriad types of fish, and an array of other marine life such as whales and dolphins thrive.

In any given August, as many as 1,000 bottlenose dolphins alone dwell in this area of the Atlantic Ocean, according to animated maps released today by the advocacy group Oceana.

Using 23 years of data compiled by Duke University researchers to show marine mammal density in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the maps are the latest effort by conservationists to convince the Obama administration to reject permits for seismic testing, a precursor to drilling.

Double threat to marine life

This screen capture from an animated map by Oceana shows dolphin movement relative to a proposed area for seismic testing off the Carolina coast.

When the U.S. Department of Interior agreed to withdraw plans for oil and gas rigs from Virginia to Georgia for five years, it eliminated the threat of oil spills to marine life

But advocates say seismic testing – for which the administration is now weighing eight permit applications – poses risks of its own.

Seismic testing sends loud blasts of compressed air deep into the ocean floor on a recurring basis, a process many scientists say harms sea turtles, fish, whales and dolphins.

Using seismic blasting in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to Florida would injure and possibly kill 138,500 whales and dolphins, according to estimates from Oceana based on federal data.

Last year, 75 marine scientists wrote the Obama administration to express “concern over the introduction of seismic oil and gas exploration” in the Atlantic, saying it was “likely to have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in region.”

State legislators, members of Congress, and coastal mayors have also spoken out against seismic testing in recent months.

The animated maps released today overlay the current seismic blasting permit application area with the density of endangered fin, humpback and sperm whales along with bottlenose dolphins over the course of a year.

“Hearing that whales and dolphins could be injured is one thing, but seeing the scale of the threat is another,” said Claire Douglass, campaign director at Oceana. “President Obama should stop seismic airgun blasting and protect our coast.”

Following the rejection of Atlantic drilling in March, observers wondered if there would be continued appetite for seismic testing. But the applicants for testing permits have yet to withdraw – perhaps, as a spokesman for the Interior said this spring to the Tideland News, because the oil and gas companies want data from seismic exploration to hold onto “until the times change and there is more demand and support for drilling.”

The Obama administration may not act on the permit requests for another month or more, but conservationists say opposition to drilling won’t ebb in the future.

Opponents such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center are urging the administration not just to reject seismic testing permits this year, but also to permanently ban all Atlantic drilling and exploration, using its authority under the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

“We know communities all up and down the East Coast opposed drilling and seismic exploration to protect their economies, their communities, and their way of life,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “If there was a reason not to drill now, that reason is going stand over the long term.”

‘The argument is only going to get stronger’

Last winter, nearly 700 people poured into the Kill Devil Hills Ramada hotel to weigh in on the Obama administration’s plan to open the southern Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling.

The public meeting on the Outer Banks drew a record-breaking crowd, the bulk of it against oil and gas rigs off the state’s coast.

“We get it,” said Monica Thibodeau, the Mayor Pro Tem of tiny Duck, just north of Kill Devil Hills, who was among the throng that day. “In our backyard, environment is paramount to our economy. All walks of life can see clearly that this is a huge threat.”

Arguments like Thibodeau’s appeared to make a difference.

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the New York Times this March. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.”

Environmental advocates and coastal community leaders say despite the suggestion in Jewell’s remarks, the rationale for protecting the Atlantic Coast won’t go away in another five years.

“If anything,” said Thibodeau, who also owns a vacation realty business, “the argument is only going to get stronger.”

‘Messing with the golden goose’

In the 14 months after the Obama administration proposed allowing offshore drilling from Virginia to Georgia, hundreds of businesses along the southern coast and over 100 local governments registered their opposition, many concerned about the threat they perceived to their coastal economy.

Matt Walker, co-chair of the Outer Banks chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, which organized area businesses to speak out against drilling, said allowing oil and gas development would equate to interfering with tourism, or “messing with the golden goose.”

In Dare County, encompassing most of the Outer Banks, a third of residents work in the tourism industry, which the North Carolina Department of Commerce says generated nearly $1 billion in revenue 2013.

“Why put an existing industry at risk?” Walker asked. “That’s like turning the faucet off for us.”

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Vxartnews since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.

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