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EDITORIAL: Trump air gun energy policy sounds miserable for whales

In this March 28, 2018 file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

The Trump administration is on the verge of approving undersea air gun blasts that could push the North American right whale to extinction.

Toss the idea overboard. It’s environmentally destructive, and counterproductive to weaning America off fossil fuels.

“The North American right whales are among the most endangered animals on the planet, and they are a population in decline,” Peggy Sloan, the Shedd Aquarium’s chief animal operations officer, told us on Friday. “When you are talking about further threatening a species that is critically endangered, that never seems like a good idea.”

Energy exploration companies use the air guns to search for undersea gas and oil deposits. But the booming blasts, which would go off every 10 seconds for months, interfere with whales’ echolocation, which they use over distances of 20 miles or more to keep in touch, guide each other to food, help mates find each other and keep migrating groups together. The air gun blasts, which can travel more than 1,500 miles and resound through areas where the whales breed, also could separate mothers and calves.

“It is really critical that we protect these whales, and the first step is to not blast their calving grounds,” said Kelsey Lamp, oceans associate with Environment America., based in Washington D.C.

The right whales, whose numbers slowly recovered after they received protection from whaling in 1935, now are in trouble again, largely because of ship strikes and entanglement in nets. Only an estimated 411 remain, and too few are being born to sustain the population. In the current breeding season, seven to nine calves have been spotted, but the year before there were none. Scientists say more stress for the whales could hurt their ability to reproduce.

The Obama administration rejected the plan for “seismic testing” with air guns, but the Trump administration has revived it. In a bit of political theater, when a Trump administration official was defending the idea on Thursday at a congressional Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., pulled out an air horn and let out a blast to give an idea of how miserable the testing would be for whales and other marine life.

Outside the Trump administration, other officials get it. Governors up and down the Atlantic coast — Republicans and Democrats — are opposed to new undersea drilling, and many cities and counties have passed resolutions in opposition as well. Environmentalists and attorneys general from nine Eastern states are suing to stop the seismic testing. On the same day Cunningham was sounding the air horn, the Washington State Senate passed a bill requiring ships to keep a bigger distance from orcas.

Focusing on drilling for more fossil fuels when we should be pursuing renewable energy is the wrong policy, especially if it sends a majestic denizen of the oceans to extinction.

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