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Opinion

Whales are calling, but no one’s answering, including the federal government

By Michael Harris      

The Trudeau government should ban seismic blasting in Canadian waters. The stakes are high if nothing changes—the likely extinction of the North Atlantic right whale—and the serious degradation of all other forms of marine life in an already declining Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Ethan Hawke, is the narrator of The Vanishing Call of the Right Whale. Image courtesy of The Vanishing Call of the Right Whale
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HALIFAX—The whales are calling but no one has answered—including the federal government.

In a small theatre in the Nova Scotia Art Gallery in downtown Halifax, 25 souls braved a blustery spring day cold enough to pass for late winter to hear that message.

It came in the form of a movie, The Vanishing Call of the Right Whale. The powerful “short” was directed by Mi’kmaw filmmaker Eliza Knockwood, and narrated by a big name in the international movie industry, Ethan Hawke. Hawke is an acclaimed American actor, nominated four times for an Academy Award.

Their message was stark. Everyone associated with the film, from producer Mary Gorman, director Knockwood, and narrator Hawke, wants the Trudeau government to ban seismic blasting in Canadian waters. The stakes are high if nothing changes—the likely extinction of the North Atlantic right whale—and the serious degradation of all other forms of marine life in an already declining Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Seismic blasting is used by the oil and gas industry to explore for new fossil fuel resources beneath the seabed. The air guns used in this type of undersea exploration create one of the loudest man-made sounds on Earth, second only to nuclear explosions. And there isn’t just one gun involved in the ocean-jarring noise of exploration, but between 18 and 48 of them.

The guns are fired every 10 seconds for months on end covering vast areas of the ocean. According to Dr. Lindy Weilgart of Dalhousie University, this practice raises background ocean noise levels 1000-fold over areas the size of New Brunswick. A single air gun blast affects 27 square kilometres of ocean. And a single exploration by BP affected 14,000 square kilometres of ocean. That is the problem.

Whales use sound the way humans use their eyes. When that hearing is impaired by these undersea blasts, they are essentially blinded. Every aspect of a whale’s life is compromised—from navigation and feeding to mating and communication.

That’s when they “wander” out of their habitat and “blunder” into ships or fishing gear. So is the culprit really vessels that travel too fast in the shipping lanes, and heavily geared up fishermen? Or could it be whales disoriented by a blitzkrieg of noise from seismic blasting?

The southern right whale breaching. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

Ottawa’s record on protecting the right whale has been somewhere between spotty and hopeless. The federal government did, to its credit, bring in some measures to protect the species after 17 of these animals turned up dead in Canadian waters in 2017. (There are believed to be 411 right whales left, only a quarter of which are breeding females.)

Seven of those deaths were attributed to “blunt force” trauma, i.e. colliding with a ship, or entanglement in fishing gear. For a time, Ottawa created protected areas for the whales and imposed speed restrictions of 10 knots on vessels 20 metres or longer. It also kept fishermen out of areas where whales might be present.

But those restrictions were later lifted. The no-go areas for fishermen were reduced in size, and the shipping lanes brought back to normal. Even the number of air surveys to spot migrating whales was reduced from two trips per week to just a single flight. So there is help from Ottawa, but it is painfully ad hoc.

The great unanswered question is why Ottawa has made modest moves in shipping and fishing to protect the endangered right whale, but done absolutely nothing about seismic blasting? In fact, it has delegated a great deal of the responsibility for exploration decisions to provincial offshore petroleum boards dominated by industry players. Abdication by any other name.

The elephant in the room is that Canada has zero regulations on the use of seismic blasting at sea. There is no mention of this practice in the government’s new legislation to modernize and improve environmental assessments. For the right whale, that glaring omission is an existential proposition. As one of the expert panel members put it, “You can’t mitigate dead.”

How different the picture is south of the border? Susannah Randolph of the Florida Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, made the observation that things were happening under the Trudeau government in Canada that looked a positively Trumpian.

“It comes as a shock to hear that the Atlantic waters north of the border in Canada are slated for seismic blasting and drilling,” she said.

There is reason for American shock to turn to anger against Canada. What, after all, is the point of protecting the right whale by banning seismic exploration and drilling along the U.S. coast, if the animals migrate north into unprotected waters?

That question was on the mind of Wilfred Moore, a Canadian Senator for 20 years before his recent retirement. Moore was the Senator who introduced legislation to end the captivity of whales and dolphins. He wondered whether Canadian officials informed the U.S Interior Secretary about the seismic blasting that would have effects on New England waters.

Why has the U.S. been a better custodian of the marine environment than Canada? Because Americans stood up and spoke out.

Despite facing Donald Trump, coastal Americans stopped the president’s five-year plan for offshore drilling announced in January 2018. They did it by mobilizing. Millions of citizens opposed Trump’s plan.

A female North Atlantic right whale with her calf. Photograph courtesy of Flickr

In Randolph’s home state of Florida, 69 per cent of voters passed a constitutional amendment that bans offshore drilling in state waters—where right whales have their calves. Since then, U.S. coastal communities have passed 150 resolutions opposing seismic testing and drilling.

According to Randolph, politicians got the message. “Both Democratic and Republican governors from New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, California, Washington, and Oregon have all opposed drilling off their coasts.”

As for the Trudeau government, it’s been mostly the talk without the walk. When the panelists finished their presentations, I asked the film’s producer, Mary Gorman, how Ottawa had reacted to the issue they were highlighting for a smattering of people on behalf of a vanishing creature.

“No, they have not reacted. There has been no feedback at all. It’s as if we don’t exist.” she said. The activist—another endangered species.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Environment Minster Catherine McKenna don’t need better lines in front of the cameras, but better deeds behind the scenes. They continue to lose the name of action in the heat of resolve.

A good place for Ottawa to show that its heart is where its rhetoric is would be to turn down a continuing proposal by a Norwegian company, Multiklient Invest, for a nine-year seismic exploration off the south coast of Nova Scotia covering a staggering 259,400 square kilometres of ocean. The first phase of the company’s environmental assessment has been completed. The second phase has been put on hold for a year. All of it should be cancelled. Image courtesy of The Vanishing Call of the Right Whale

They should remember something. It’s not much of a credit to your public policy CV to erase a grand species from the ocean, and to do that in the name of an outdated energy source that also happens to be killing the planet.

A good place for Ottawa to show that its heart is where its rhetoric is would be to turn down a continuing proposal by a Norwegian company, Multiklient Invest, for a nine-year seismic exploration off the south coast of Nova Scotia covering a staggering 259,400 square kilometres of ocean. The first phase of the company’s environmental assessment has been completed. The second phase has been put on hold for a year. All of it should be cancelled.

If you’ve ever heard a right whale sing, you would know what I mean.

Michael Harris is an award-winning journalist and author. 

The Hill Times 

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