$500K Grant to Center for Environment and Society

A male bobwhite quail at the Natural Lands Project

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has awarded Washington College’s Center for Environment & Society (CES) $500,000 to expand its innovative Natural Lands Project into the mid-shore. The foundation grant meets $801,000 in matching funding from CES and its partners, Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and Pickering Creek Audubon Center, for a total of $1.3 million for the project.

The Natural Lands Project (NLP), piloted at the college’s Chester River Field Research Station at Chino Farms, enlists the support of local landowners to restore grassland habitat for bobwhite quail and other species while also creating buffers that help filter runoff into the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries.

“The Natural Lands Project encompasses the best of what we do and teach—it restores habitat, cleans the Bay, and perhaps most important, it provides an example to our students of how the cultural links between environment and society can be used in restoration,” said John Seidel, director of the CES. “That social and community element in restoration is critical to the future of the Chesapeake, as well as to watersheds around the world.”

The grant, announced Sept. 19, was among 44 projects awarded through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants and Small Watershed Grants programs, as well as other partners. Washington College is the only institution of higher education among the recipients.

“Through the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and our partners, especially the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, continue to invest in locally led efforts to protect and restore the more than 100,000 miles of local rivers and streams that feed the Bay,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO, NFWF. “These investments demonstrate that the actions necessary to restore local rivers and streams go hand in hand with opportunities to enhance local communities.”

One of the biggest issues for the Bay on the Eastern Shore is agricultural runoff. Collaterally, as more acreage is put into agriculture, grassland and upland habitats are vanishing, and with them, iconic species like the bobwhite quail. Using the restored grasslands at the college’s Chester River Field Research Station, Dan Small, a field ecologist with CES and now coordinator of the NLP, has been conducting surveys to document the quail population in the restored grasslands and around the farm. By last year, Small and Washington College student researchers documented an average of 25 calling males and an estimated 29 coveys—the highest concentration of the species in the state of Maryland since its precipitous decline began decades ago.

As a game bird, the bobwhite historically is on a cultural par with the Canada goose on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Its loss was keenly felt among hunters, sportsmen, and farmers. In an effort to motivate landowners to create more habitat for the quail—and, by extension, create buffers that would help reduce agricultural runoff into the Bay’s tributaries—the CES worked with the Chester River Association in 2015 to spin the quail restoration into the Natural Lands Project with a $700,000 award from the Department of Natural Resources.

“The concept was simple,” said Mike Hardesty, associate director of programs and staff at CES. “Transform less-than-productive agricultural land into natural habitat for iconic species. Give landowners a cultural reason—even more compelling than a financial one—to set aside some of their land for habitat management, which in turn would benefit local water quality and Bay restoration efforts.” The NLP also restores wetlands in order to achieve similar water quality and wildlife benefits.

In the first two years, the NLP created 274 acres of native upland grasses and wildflowers in marginal cropland on 11 participating farms. Ten wetlands projects—25 acres of wetlands in fields with unproductive soils poorly suited for growing crops—were also completed. College students and CES researchers began what will be a continuing survey of bird populations to monitor abundance and diversity at each site.

The new funding will be used to expand the project to into the middle and upper Eastern Shore to 285 more acres of buffers and 16 more acres of wetlands. Before receiving the award, five landowners signed on for an additional 115 acres. CES expects this project and its focus to grow and the model to be used in watersheds across the country.

Watch a video about the Natural Lands Project.

 

MD Septic Pollution Lawsuit Cleared for Trial

A Caroline County judge has ruled that a former Maryland woman who sued the state and the Eastern Shore town of Goldsboro, blaming them for the loss of her family campground to unchecked septic pollution, will have her day in court.

In early September, Circuit Court Judge Sidney Campen denied a motion by the town and the state to dismiss the case, saying that a jury needed to decide if either bore responsibility for the pollution to Lake Bonnie, a 28-acre impoundment on the 100-acre property that Gail Litz used to own.  The judge has yet to set a trial date.

In 1996, the Caroline County Health Department closed the campground’s lake to swimming, citing unsafe fecal coliform levels in the water, which were traced to failing septic systems in nearby Goldsboro.

That same year, the town signed a consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment acknowledging that residents’ septic systems were failing. The order outlined a schedule for the town to install a public sewer system and said Goldsboro would be fined $100 a day if it did not comply.

The town never undertook the wholesale fix, and the state didn’t enforce the order. In 2010, Litz lost her property to foreclosure and filed a lawsuit, alleging the town and county’s negligence cost her the property.  She asked for $7 million in compensation.

Campen wrote that the “most significant and overarching disputed fact” in this case is whether, and to what extent, the pollution of Lake Bonnie continued after the 1996 consent order. “This factual dispute must first be resolved by a jury before other factual or legal issues can be addressed,” the judge wrote.

For seven years, across various courtrooms, Goldsboro’s attorneys said that the town had no money to fix the problem, and that Litz had waited too long to file suit.  The state also argued that it was not legally obligated to enforce the consent order. Lawyers for the MDE contended that they could not force Goldsboro to pay.

Those arguments prevailed in lower court hearings, but in February 2016, Maryland’s highest court said that the state’s failure to enforce the consent order could be viewed as “inverse condemnation” if Litz could prove it was the septic pollution that caused her loss. The case was sent back to Caroline County Circuit Court for a trial.

A trial was all Litz has wanted since she filed the lawsuit seven years ago. After losing her home and lake, she moved in with her son and his family in Florida, and worried that she wouldn’t have any inheritance to leave them.

“I just want responsibility taken and my children and I to be compensated,” she said. “No one can replace the home we loved and treasured.”

This summer, as the case went before Campen after the town and state filed to dismiss it, both began raising new arguments. After years of not disputing Litz’s claim that Goldsboro’s failing septic systems contaminated Lake Bonnie, MDE attorneys spent much of a July hearing questioning how much of the lake’s problem could be laid on the town. They pointed to other possible sources, including a small llama herd and a chicken farm. In motions filed before the hearing, they also contended that Litz lost her property because of poor business decisions.

Meanwhile, Goldsboro’s attorneys, who had always argued the town could not afford the fixes, said the town was “not obligated” to fix residents’ septic tanks because they were private and fell under the county health department.

In 1985 and again in 1988, Goldsboro residents voted down a sewage plant that would have raised their rates. The plant would have cost several million dollars, but at that point, the federal government was willing to fund 90 percent of it. The cost to Goldsboro residents: between 39 and 62 cents a day, according to Litz’ lawyer, G. Macy Nelson.

After the bank foreclosed on Litz’s property, it sold the campground and lake for $400,000 to a family that now uses the land as a private residence. Three decades after the county health department declared that Goldsboro desperately needed a wastewater treatment system, the state and federal government funded a solution. In 2015, the county broke ground on a $19 million wastewater plant on Greensboro that will connect to the 100 or so homes in Goldsboro, about 10 miles away, next year.

by Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun.

An Eastern Shore Land Conservancy Toast to Sandy Hoon

In a few weeks, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy will be having their annual gala in Kent County to honor one of their organization’s founders, Alexander “Sandy” Hoon, who passed away a few months ago. The Spy was delighted to hear the news of the gala.

While Sandy might have been best known in his senior years as being the father of the well-known attorney in town, Philip Hoon, the legacy of Sandy Hoon’s contributions to Chestertown, Kent County, and a good bit of the Mid-Shore are not only noteworthy but truly worthy to celebrate.

While no one could never accuse Sandy of shyness, like many of his generation, it was not in his core nature to take a bow. Like many of a certain age, he never sought credit for when he and other dedicated Mid-Shore land conservationists, like former Governor Harry Hughes and Centreville attorney Howard Wood, helped formed the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy in 1990.

But the results of that fledgling organization, twenty-seven years later, show how remarkable that achievement has been. Since those early days, literally thousands of acres of some of the Eastern Shore’s most extraordinary landscapes have been permanently protected in all five counties of the Mid-Shore.  Just as importantly, the ESLC has taken on a leadership role in keeping small towns in the region vibrant with such stunning successes like the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in Easton or the transformational plans for the Cannery Building in Cambridge.

The Spy sat down with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s first and only executive director, Rob Etgen, and Sandy’s son Phil to reminisce  about Sandy and his impact on land conservation.

This video is approximately two minutes in length. For more information about the ESLC gala please go here

CBF on the Shore: Harris Creek Update and Rod and Reef Slam

It’s safe to say that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – or anyone concerned with the health of our local waterways and its critters – is interested in how Harris Creek is doing. It’s the largest known man-made oyster reef in the world. While the project’s success will be measured over the course of many years, early monitoring reports out now begin to indicate whether the restoration is meeting expectations.

It was great news when reports showed that by and large oyster restoration is remarkably successful in Harris Creek. It is meeting scientifically determined thresholds for success, and then some. Eighty percent of the reefs in some areas of the creek are meeting the optimal threshold of 50 oysters per square meter. While the Spy has its doubts about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s claim there were no staff celebrations on this news, the CBF message was clear in talking to Alan Girard, CBF’s Eastern Shore Director, and Allison Colden, its Maryland Fisheries Scientist, that this is not the time for a victory party.

As Alan and Allison discuss in their Spy interview last week, the Harris Creek project still has many serious hurdles to pass over before any real success can be declared. Nonetheless, both Alan and Allison can’t hide their genuine excitement with the latest monitoring results.

Alan also talks about CBF’s upcoming, Harris Creek Rod and Reef Slam which turns out to be not your average fishing tournament.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Harris Creek project or the Rod and Reef Slam please go here

Environmental Concern Celebrates 45 Years with Upcoming Native Plant Sale

In celebration of 45 years working for wetlands, water quality and beneficial habitat, Environmental Concern (EC) will offer the largest selection of quality native plants in the region at their upcoming Fall Native Plant Sale. Join the EC staff for a festival of the senses – see the vivid red bloom on the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); smell the scent of the wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); and hear the birds, bees and bullfrogs that live in our wetland habitats.

EC’s native wetland plant nursery was the first of its kind in the nation – long before wetlands were accepted as anything but mosquito infested swamps. Since 1972, EC has expanded from a group of interns and biologists working out of an oversized garage to a 6 acre horticulture, education, and restoration facility.

EC’s campus, located at the headwaters of the San Domingo Creek, now supports 19 greenhouses, a wetland education building with classroom and creative activity spaces; a seed propagation and research workspace; the technology and resources required to provide wetland restoration design and construction services, and over 20 full time employees – all focused on improving water quality and increasing crucial habitat in the Chesapeake Bay.

Thanks to the support of the community, students, teachers, businesses and our partners, since 1972 EC has educated over 40,000 teachers, students and community members; propagated, grown and planted over 30 million native plants on shorelines and landscapes in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed; restored over 1.6 million sq. ft. of eroded shorelines and constructed hundreds of ponds, rain gardens and other types of stormwater management facilities.

With your help, we’re continuing our mission to increase the quantity of native species in our local habitats, and in your gardens. We invite the public to join EC for the 16 th annual Fall Native Plant Sale and Open House. In addition to the plant sale, Community Workshops will be held from 10:00 – 11:00 am each day. “Monarch Rearing” is the feature presentation on Friday, September 8 th , and “Late Season Nectar Sources for Monarchs” will be offered on Saturday, September 9th. Participants will see the Monarch caterpillars munching on milkweed. If the time is right, you may see a Monarch emerging from its chrysalis. What is the chrysalis? Pre-register for the workshops at www.wetland.org to find out!

This fall, we have invited Eat Sprout to join us on Saturday. Eat Sprout will be offering delicious, breakfast and lunch specials for purchase. Enjoy a leisurely lunch while enjoying the serenity of the San Domingo Creek.

EC’s Campus is located at 201 Boundary Lane in historic St. Michaels. The sale hours are Friday, September 8 th from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Saturday, September 9 th from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Visit www.wetland.org for more information

The Most Important Fish in the Bay Needs Help

Join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on September 6, 6:30 p.m. at the Eastern Shore Conservation Center in downtown Easton for an evening of all things menhaden. CBF is screening the short film Menhaden: The Most Important Fish in the Bay, followed by a discussion of the current state of the fishery in the Chesapeake Bay. CBF’s Maryland Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden will describe the critical role that menhaden play in the Bay’s food web and answer questions from the audience. One lucky audience member will walk away with a fun and fishy CBF gift basket.

Menhaden face potential new threats along the Atlantic coast. Right now, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is responding by considering revisions to its fishery management plan. One proposed amendment to the plan could help keep more fish in the water by including important guidelines—called “ecological reference points.” These will help fishery managers ensure that enough of these essential fish remain in the water, serving their role as a vital food source.

Any threat to this critical fish is also a threat to the countless Chesapeake critters who rely on it. Learn more about the current state of this fishery and what you can do to help on September 6. This event is free and open to the public, but registration is required at cbf.org/MenhadenFilm. Contact Hilary Gibson at hgibson@cbf.org or 410/543-1999 with questions.

If you can’t make the event, you can still make your voice heard. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday, September 18 from 6-8:00p.m. at Anne Arundel Community College, Cade Center for the Fine Arts – Room 219, 101 College Parkway, Arnold, MD. Written comments on ASMFC’s Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden will be accepted through October 20, 2017. Comments can be sent to comments@asmfc.org (Subject line: Draft Amd. 3).

 

Join Adkins Arboretum for CHIHULY at the New York Botanical Garden

Artist Dale Chihuly has mastered the translucent and transparent qualities of ice, water, glass and neon to create works of art that transform the everyday experience. He is globally renowned for his ambitious site-specific installations in public spaces as well as exhibitions in museums and gardens worldwide. For the first time in more than 10 years, Chihuly’s artwork is on view in a major garden exhibition in New York. CHIHULY, on view through October at the New York Botanical Garden, showcases more than 20 installations and includes drawings and early works that reveal the evolution and development of Chihuly’s artistic process during his celebrated career. Join Adkins Arboretum on Sat., Oct. 28 for an afternoon and evening adventure to NYBG to view Chihuly’s breathtaking works of art that dazzle with color, light and form in both day and night.

Set within NYBG’s landmark landscape and buildings, this sensory-filled exhibition is a must-see as the Garden’s dramatic vistas become living canvases for work created specifically for NYBG, showcasing Chihuly’s signature shapes and brilliant colors. The exhibit includes a monumental reimagining of his storied 1975 Artpark installation, with new works enlivening the Garden’s water features and reflecting the interplay and movement of color and light. One-of-a-kind installations highlight the synergy between Chihuly’s organic shapes and the natural environment. 

The trip includes CHIHULY Nights, when the artworks are spectacularly illuminated amid NYBG’s sweeping vistas and magnificent Conservatory. The after-sunset atmosphere is thrilling as the exhibition is infused with magical energy, heightened drama and luminous colors and forms when works are lit under the evening sky.

This trip is offered during the final weekend of CHIHULY and CHIHULY Nights. The bus departs from the Easton Firehouse on Aurora Park Drive at 10 a.m. and from the Route 50 westbound Park and Ride at Route 404 at 10:20 a.m. An additional stop at the 301/291 Park and Ride will be added upon request for Chestertown-area residents. The bus will depart for home at 8 p.m. The program fee of $150 for members and $205 for non-members includes transportation, admission to NYBG and CHIHULY Nights and driver gratuity. To ensure the trip proceeds, please register by Fri., Sept. 29 at adkinsarboretum.org or by calling 410-634-2847, ext. 0.

Adkins Arboretum is a 400-acre native garden and preserve at the headwaters of the Tuckahoe Creek in Caroline County. Open year round, the Arboretum offers educational programs for all ages about nature, conservation and gardening. For more information, visit adkinsarboretum.org or call 410-634-2847, ext. 0.

Audubon and Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage offer Habitat Workshop for Landowners

Pickering Creek Audubon Center and Chesapeake Wildlife Heritage (CWH) will present an exciting educator and landowner training on September 28th, 2017 from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM. The training, Restoring Habitat in the Chesapeake Bay Region of the Atlantic Flyway, includes lunch and is offered free of charge for participants thanks to a 2016 grant from Waterfowl Chesapeake, the conservation arm of the annual Waterfowl Festival. Pickering Creek and CWH have previously partnered to restore 90 acres of non-tidal wetlands, plant 11 acres of woodlands, and create 48 acres of warm season grass meadows at Pickering Creek. All of these projects are used to showcase habitat restoration and land management activities.

The training is designed for large landowners and caretakers, staff and volunteer leaders of local land conservancy, environmental education and other conservation and community organizations in an effort to encourage each organization’s constituents to restore large tracts of farmland to bird and wildlife habitat. During this one-day workshop staff and lead volunteers from partnering organizations will receive in depth training on the value of these projects to birdlife, wildlife and water quality.

The workshop will focus not only on the benefits, but will also touch upon the methods of restoring cropland to a variety of habitats including warm season grass buffers and meadows, forest buffers and freshwater wetlands. The training will emphasize the value of these habitats to birds along the Atlantic Flyway, particularly field size restoration projects that can affect landscape scale improvement to local ecosystems. At the conclusion of the training, participants will have a stock presentation and script that they will be able to use to give short presentations to the local community groups they are in contact with on the value of habitat restoration projects, the basic methods of implementation and contact information for technical and financial assistance required to initiate a project.

In Maryland, wetlands have declined by 70% according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Wildlife populations have suffered from that loss of habitat including, according to Audubon’s State of the Birds, Northern Pintail (decline of 77%), Eastern Meadowlark (72%), Grasshopper Sparrow (65%) and Northern Bobwhite (82%). The USGS notes that 95% of nutrients in Chesapeake Bay drainage of the Delmarva Peninsula comes from agriculture (USGS Circular 1228). In forested habitat Wood Thrush have declined 30% and continue to decline 1.7% each year. Attention to opportunities by community leaders to optimize habitats of these species is critical to their survival.

On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, 20-500 acre properties are still commonly found. Though rich in traditional ‘environmental’ organizations, individual landowners have a great opportunity to learn about, implement and spread the word about land management practices that can improve the health of the Bay and wildlife.

The workshop will conclude with a session on Audubon’s “Plants for Birds” program. More native plants mean more choices of food and shelter for native birds and other wildlife. To survive, native birds need native plants and the insects that have co-evolved with them. Most landscaping plants available in nurseries are exotic species from other countries. Many are prized for qualities that make them poor food sources for native birds—like having leaves that are unpalatable to native insects and caterpillars. With 96 percent of all terrestrial bird species in North America feeding insects to their young, planting insect-proof exotic plants is like serving up plastic food. No insects? No birds.

The workshop is sponsored by Waterfowl Chesapeake as part of their effort to connect financial resources with environmental needs and also increase community engagement and people’s understanding of the importance and benefits of healthy waterfowl habitats and populations on the Shore. Pickering Creek Audubon Center has been educating citizens on the Eastern Shore of Maryland about the environment for twenty-five years. A strong relationship with local school programs and community groups helps facilitate more than 12,000 program contacts with individuals each year. The Center’s 400 acres of forest, wetland, tidal marsh and agricultural fields exhibit the broad diversity of habitats that represent Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

To register for the training please contact Mark Scallion mscallion@audubon.org or Samantha Pitts spitts@audubon.org at Pickering Creek Audubon Center, 410.822.4903

ESLC Teams Up with Lyon Distilling for Limited Batch of Black Rum

A local nonprofit known for land preservation and town planning on the Eastern Shore has hooked up with one of Maryland’s finest distilleries for a good cause.

Lyon Distilling Company of St. Michaels, known since 2013 as a micro, craft distillery producing ultra-small batches of award-winning rums and whiskeys in St. Michaels, has released its latest concoction – a special, limited batch Black Rum with a percentage of every bottle sold benefitting the projects and programs of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC).

This rum varietal features a rich and smooth finish, with subtle touches of oak spice and sweetness. From the bottle’s packaging: “Together we are committed to protecting the land on which we work and play, and encourage you to sip this delicious spirit soundly knowing that a portion of your purchase helps fund ESLC’s many worthwhile endeavors.”

“We’re so excited to help support the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy with our Black Rum,” says Lyon owner and co-founder Jaime Windon. “I’ve always admired partnerships like this. Philanthropy is so important to us and as a startup we are limited in what we can do. But we try to do everything that we can locally, and this is the first effort that has been organized at this level. Exciting times!”

ESLC plans to commemorate the release of the Black Rum partnership with a happy hour party on Thursday, August 31st from 5-7pm at their headquarters in Easton. Bottles will be available for sale with Lyon staff on hand providing tastings and joining in the celebration. ESLC’s Communication Manager David Ferraris described the partnership as “a natural fit.”

“ESLC is ecstatic to have its name associated with a local company producing an exceptional product,” said Ferraris. “Since their arrival on the Shore, Lyon has made it clear that they support local initiatives that are near and dear to their hearts. Protecting and preserving the environment in which they live and conduct business is one of those initiatives, so this makes perfect sense.”

For more information, please contact ESLC’s Communication Manager, David Ferraris, at dferraris@eslc.org or 410.690.4603 x165.

Opposition Grows to Seismic Testing For Offshore Oil Reserves

Scientists are worried that an executive order issued by President Trump earlier this year that seeks to open large portions of the mid-Atlantic and other coastal areas to oil and gas exploration would harm the endangered North Atlantic right whale and other species that occasionally visit the Chesapeake Bay.

Trump’s order, issued April 28, would reverse a 2016 policy from the Obama administration that outlawed drilling in federal waters off portions of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. The order also instructed federal agencies to streamline the permitting process to speed approval of seismic testing to locate oil and gas reserves in those areas.

But the action is increasingly unpopular with many elected officials along the East Coast. In July, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced his opposition to further offshore exploration. And the attorneys general from nine East Coast jurisdictions — including those from Maryland, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and Delaware — submitted comments opposing additional surveys.

“The proposed seismic tests are themselves disruptive and harmful,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement. “Worse, they are the precursors to offshore drilling that would put the Chesapeake Bay at risk to drilling-related contamination. That contamination would have catastrophic impacts on fragile ecosystems and important economies. This is a foolish gamble with our precious natural resources.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia is the lone Southeastern governor supporting marine oil exploration, saying he “never had a problem” with seismic testing. While 127 municipalities have passed resolutions against the tests, only five are in Virginia.

But coastal Virginians’ unease with seismic tests appears to be growing. In July, the city council of Norfolk passed a unanimous resolution opposing both offshore drilling and seismic testing, citing threats to marine life, local fisheries and wetlands that offer vital protection from rising seas. The previous month, the city council of Virginia Beach also voted to oppose offshore drilling.

The seismic testing has raised particular concern because of its potential impact on marine life. The tests are conducted by firing seismic air guns from ships “every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, at a noise level that would rupture a human eardrum,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that was among 10 organizations that filed suit May 3 over the executive order. Among the plaintiffs’ contentions is that seismic blasts “could deafen and even kill whales, dolphins and other animals.”

The University of Rhode Island, in partnership with NOAA, has created a website called “sound in the sea,” through which visitors can click to hear what seismic air guns actually sound like when heard several thousand kilometers away underwater.

Cetaceans — whales and their relatives — use specialized echolocation for almost all of their activities, including hunting, migration, courtship and communication, but they are extremely sensitive to underwater sound vibrations, scientists say. Right whales, whose population is thought to number only around 500, could be at particular risk, they say.

Last spring, 28 top marine mammal scientists specializing in right whales signed a statement declaring unequivocally that for this species, already facing a “desperate level of endangerment,” widespread seismic surveys may well represent a tipping point toward extinction.

To locate new sources of undersea oil, companies employ compressed-air guns that blast powerful acoustic waves through the water and into the seafloor. Each seismic test can affect an area of more than 2,500 square nautical miles, raising background noise levels to 260 decibels, approximately equaling the epicenter of a grenade blast. This can go on continuously for weeks or even months, according to a 2013 report released by the international body carrying out the United Nations sponsored Convention on Biodiversity.

Scientists say potential harm is not limited to large marine mammals. The testing could also harm zooplankton — microscopic invertebrates that constitute the core of the marine food chain for everything from shrimp to baleen whales. In a June 2017 study published in the journal Nature, a team of marine ecologists found that their air gun tests decreased zooplankton abundance and caused a two–to threefold increase in dead adult and larval zooplankton. The study concluded that there was significant potential for negative impacts on the ocean ecosystem’s functions and productivity.

In May, 133 environmental and civic organizations sent a joint letter to U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asking him not to proceed with the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore oil drilling and related seismic testing, citing “unacceptable risks” to ocean wildlife and ecosystems as well as human populations on the coast.

But Zinke followed up on the president’s executive order with an order of his own on May 11, setting the seismic testing in motion. “Seismic surveying helps a variety of federal and state partners better understand our nation’s offshore areas, including locating offshore hazards, siting of wind turbines, as well as offshore energy development,” Zinke said in a statement. “Allowing this scientific pursuit enables us to safely identify and evaluate resources that belong to the American people.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service has also proposed authorizing more than 90,000 miles of active seismic blasting which, based on the results of the Nature report, would constitute “approximately 135,000 square miles,” according to the Natural Resource Defense Council.

Reflection seismology, as the geophysical exploratory process is called, uses concussive compressed air to send a sudden shock of sound beneath the ocean surface. Oil deposits can be detected by a geological interpretation of sounds, or reflections, that bounce back. Reflections are gathered and collated by floating hydrophones, also called towed arrays or streamers.

“When a mammal is exposed to an audible sound of high intensity and long duration,” said Maria Morell, a specialist in marine mammal acoustics in the University of British Columbia’s zoology. “The sensory cells of the inner ear can suffer mechanical and metabolical fatigue.” This can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss, she said.

The seismic testing, she said, just adds to the cacophony that Atlantic’s marine mammals endure every day, including everything from ship engine noise and military activities to acoustic deterrent and harassment devices.

Ingrid Biedron, a marine biologist with the conservation group Oceana, said that Trump’s call for offshore drilling may be difficult to enact under federal law. “Current proposals conflict with the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” she said. “They also conflict with the Endangered Species Act because several endangered whale species use the area proposed for seismic air gun blasting.” Citing a federal study, she said that as many as 138,000 whales and dolphins could be harmed and up to 13 million disturbed if the seismic testing is allowed.

The recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Noise Roadmap recognizes that “sound is a fundamental component of the physical and biological habitat that many aquatic animals and ecosystems have evolved to rely on over millions of years.”

By William H. Funk

William H. (Bill) Funk is a freelance environmental journalist whose work for the Bay Journal centers on wildlife, forestry, rivers, farming and other land use issues in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.