Photo: NOAA

In late January 2018, another North Atlantic right whale was found dead, entangled in fishing gear. It has now been reported that this whale was one of only about 100 reproductively mature females left in this species.

A total of 17 North Atlantic right whales died in 2017 — leaving fewer than 450 living right whales on the planet. Researchers report that more females are dying than males, making it even more difficult for the species to rebound.

Without swift intervention, it’s possible that North Atlantic right whales could go extinct within 20 years. It is a critical time for this species.

And yet, even as right whales face continued threats from entanglements in fishing gear and extreme weather events, proposed new policies in the U.S. could push them over the brink. Not only are House Republicans looking to scale back the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which would strip even our most basic safeguards from ocean wildlife, but President Trump’s proposed offshore drilling plan would open up important calving grounds to dangerous drilling, and further put the future of the North Atlantic right whale species at risk.

Oil spills are an inherent danger of offshore drilling, and the tarry substance can severely harm whales and other marine mammals -- ranging from suffocation to hypothermia. However, North Atlantic right whales are also threatened by seismic testing (also known as seismic blasting), which is the process of searching for new places to drill.

And under President Trump's proposed offshore drilling plan, we would see an increase in both offshore drilling and seismic testing — an increase that could prove deadly.

So why are these whales threatened by seismic testing? During testing, seismic airguns are fired into the water to detect oil under the ocean floor. The blasts register at 220 to 250 decibels — louder than the Saturn V rocket during launch, which not only sent people to the moon, but also produced one of the loudest sounds ever recorded — which is capable of melting concrete and setting grass on fire by sound alone. The loud sound is why this practice is also known as “seismic blasting.”

The sound from these airguns is one of the major threats to whales, who rely on sonar to perceive the world. The sound waves have been shown to disrupt their foraging patterns and even halt migration at long distances. What’s more, exposure to this noise is associated with elevated stress levels in North Atlantic right whales.

Stress in female right whales can cause a delay in calving. No calves and increased whale deaths could lead to continued population loss in the already endangered species.

Of course, we should also be talking about how to stop deadly fishing gear entanglements and all of the other risks to this species. But with President Trump’s offshore drilling plan looming, we also need to take action to prevent further offshore drilling and seismic testing that could severely harm North Atlantic right whales.

We cannot allow the search for more oil to continue to risk the lives of North Atlantic right whales, or any of the other species that live in our oceans. The public comment period for this plan is open, and you can submit yours here.