|Gulf drilling hub also whale hangout
Researchers studying potential impacts on sperm whales
ENVIRONMENT NEWS SERVICE
May 25 A breeding population of about 530 endangered sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico may be feeling the effects of an increase this year in deepwater oil and gas drilling. Researchers have found that these whales frequent the deeper waters off the Mississippi Delta in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico.
IN A TEXAS Sea Grant funded project, marine biologists Randall Davis and Bernd Würsig at Texas A&M University at Galveston plan to learn more about these sperm whales that live so close to the coast. They will use satellite tracking, direct observation, genetic analysis and photographic identification to trace the effect of oil drilling on the whales.
Basically, we probably have a breeding population of endangered sperm whales right in the middle of one of the hottest areas for offshore oil development in the continental U.S., Davis said.
The unique aspect of the Gulf is we have a continental shelf that is
only about 25 miles wide off the Mississippi Delta, so we have this influx
of freshwater nutrients into a deepwater environment very close to the
coast, he said.
The project is set up as a basic science study that looks at the natural history of sperm whales in the northern Gulf of Mexico. But Davis says the studys findings will likely be of interest to the Marine Mammal Commission, National Marine Fisheries Service as well as the Minerals Management Service, which oversees development of offshore oil and gas deposits.
The Endangered Species Act requires officials to monitor not only oil pollution
but also noise pollution, which comes from boat traffic and seismic activity
that is used to search for oil.
MMS Acting Director Tom Kitsos said, This level
of deepwater oil and gas activity illustrates the tremendous level of industry
interest in the deepwater portion of the Gulf of Mexico. Last year began
with 26 rigs working in deepwater, but that number continued to rise. By
the end of the year, there were a record 40 rigs drilling in the deep waters
of the Gulf. Now, just four months into 2001, a new record has been
MMS must determine if offshore industry noise and marine seismic operations
represent a threat to marine mammals and, if so, means to mitigate those
effects. These determinations have been hindered by little data.
Last summer, a group of scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service,
the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, University of Kansas, University
of Durham and the University of St. Andrews in the UK, conducted a four week
study of the Gulf sperm whales from a large research vessel equipped with
sophisticated listening and tracking devices.
The sperm whale is the largest of the worlds toothed whales, measuring
up to 59 feet. Sperm whales live in deep waters, and are the most abundant
large whale in the Gulf of Mexico, but other whales swim there too. Fin,
blue, sei, fin, minke, Brydes and humpback whales have been seen. Orcas,
pygmy sperm whales and dwarf sperm whales, four species of beaked whales,
pilot whales and 10 species of dolphins have been reported in the Gulf.