07 • 22 • 2021

Surfrider Files Suit to Protect the Gulf of Mexico from Seismic Testing

By Angela Howe

Surfrider Foundation, along with a strong coalition of environmental groups, filed suit today to challenge a National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) rulemaking that would allow exceedingly harmful seismic airgun testing in the Gulf of Mexico.  This rule would permit around-the-clock seismic testing, which is used to search for oil and gas deposits deep beneath the ocean floor, with only minimal protections for marine life that can be profoundly affected by the airgun blasting through noise, especially through disorientation and stranding of marine animals.

Similar to Surfrider's Protect the Atlantic campaign to challenge seismic testing, we are teaming up with stellar attorneys from Earthjustice, as well as co-plaintiffs of Healthy Gulf, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The lawsuit claims that NMFS violated the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) when it approved the testing. This litigation involves the final rulemaking of NMFS under the Trump Administration to allow the oil and gas industry permission to “take” (or harass) marine mammals through seismic airgun surveys in the Gulf of Mexico for the next 5 years.  This rule would allow offshore oil and gas developers to knowingly harm marine mammals and other wildlife, leading to behavioral harassment and physical injury to marine life, including dolphins and whales, that depend on their hearing for basic life functions like communication, navigation, breeding and locating prey.  

The agency’s approval would allow the industry to harm marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico more than 8 million times over 5 years. The proposed seismic activity is likely to harass or injure one-third of the population of the Rice's whale, a species under dire threat of extinction, of which only 50 individuals are thought to still exist. National Marine Fisheries Service claims this falls under the “small number” harassment exception. However, Surfrider and coalition partners contend that this is a violation of the species protection law, and that NMFS failed to evaluate potentially practicable mitigation measures. The lawsuit also claims that NMFS, together with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, violated the NEPA in failing to adequately assess the impacts of seismic testing on the Gulf of Mexico whale.

“The level of damage to the marine mammals of the Gulf that NMFS is authorizing is immense and unacceptable. It could contribute to the extinction of the highly endangered Rice’s whale and would undermine the recovery of many populations of dolphins and whales harmed by the BP Disaster,” said Cynthia Sarthou, Executive Director of Healthy Gulf. 

The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. The Surfrider Foundation is represented by Steve Mashuda and Brettny Hardy of Earthjustice.