Stopping the Barco Asesino

The document I had been looking for came rolling off the fax in the morning of February 25, removing any doubt that the first intense chapter of a new campaign had indeed been closed, and sea life had won an amazing victory. The document was from the Mexican environmental authority Semarnat. In no uncertain terms it cancelled the authorization given to the research vessel RV Maurice Ewing to perform extensive seismic exploration off the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.

I first heard about the proposed research through an innocuous sounding note in the Federal Register concerning an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) application to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for a "small take of marine mammals." This phrase is vague in the extreme. In US law, a "take" refers to any human activity that affects wildlife, from changing their behavior to killing them. And "small" does not necessarily mean "few." The notice gave the contact person's name in NMFS for further information. I called and was emailed two massive documents: the IHA and the Environmental Assessment (EA).

In seconds I saw that this study proposed by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, using a vessel owned by the National Science Foundation, was a monster. The Maurice Ewing was equipped with not only a massive array of twenty airguns but also two active sonar devices. The maximum volume of the airgun array was listed at 255 decibels. For comparison, 146 decibels is the threshold our government has set for the maximum level of sound in the water to which humans can be safely exposed. The decibel scale is logarithmic: 156 decibels is ten times more intense a sound than 146; 255 decibels is almost 100 billion times greater than what human divers can take. And this ship was planning on emitting these sounds every twenty seconds, night and day, for days on end.

Included in the IHA was a list of marine mammals expected to receive levels of over 160 decibels, given their expected distance from the ship:

8442 bottlenose dolphins
915 Atlantic spotted dolphins
404 pantropical dolphins
333 false killer whales
274 rough-toothed dolphins
190 short-finned pilot whales
10 each of sperm whales, pygmy sperm whales, and Cuviers, Sowerbys, Gervais, and Blainville beaked whales, orcas, and Risso's dolphins
2 each of North Atlantic Right whales, Humpback whales, Minke whales, Brydes whales, Sei whales, Fin whales, and Blue whales
plus manatees, turtles, hooded seals, etc.

The purpose of the cruise was to study the Chicxulub crater, the mammoth divot on the edge of the Yucatan where a meteorite slammed to earth 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. The sonar and airguns were to assist in seeing the ocean floor to surmise the angle with which the meteorite entered and the way it raised the surrounding land. The research sounded intriguing, but not at the risk of harming all of these creatures.

So I cranked up the computer, emailing the IHA and EA files along with an action alert to everyone that I thought might help. Copies went to our Mexican allies. Copies went to our colleagues fighting intense ocean noise. And copies went to officials in the Mexican Embassy. Michael Stocker of Seaflow alerted its members. Sympathetic listserves quickly spread the alarm bells to many thousands around the world.

Time was extremely short. The Maurice Ewing had already set sail from Norfolk, Virginia en route to Progreso on the coast of the Yucatan. The research was set to begin less than a week away—on March 1.

Even though NMFS had not yet granted the permission to "harass" thousands of marine mammals, they were poised to do just that. The fact that the same ship was implicated in the killing of two beaked whales in the (Mexican) Sea of Cortez in 2002 and possibly in the Galapagos a couple of years before that did not appear to be sufficient reason to stop the project. Considering the primary researcher had emailed me that they already had Mexican permission, appealing to the Government of Mexico seemed our best chance, especially since they had declared all of their waters a sanctuary for great whales in 2002.

Word started filtering back from our Mexican colleagues that the documents were raising a stir. Evidently, in applying for permission from Mexico, the US State Department had sent just eight pages of benign information. On that basis, permission had been granted. When Semarnat received our two hundred pages of IHA and EA documents, including the list of creatures for whom the "take" was applied, they apparently felt grossly misled.

After several days of intense meetings between the Secretary of Semarnat and the Foreign Minister of Mexico, permission to conduct the seismic tests was revoked. The fax I received gave 14 reasons for withdrawing permission including the sanctuary decree and the lack of proper documentation. While writing this, I received a call from Aracelli Rodriguez, my Cancun colleague who worked so hard with me on this crisis. She was beside herself with joy. She had just been called by officials of Profepa, another environmental protection arm of the Mexican government. They told her that they had just boarded the Maurice Ewing upon its arrival in Mexico and had instructed the skipper that the ship could not move until they had filed new transit information that showed them immediately leaving Mexican waters. We had really won.

Unfortunately, the sweet taste of victory is tempered by the fact that the ship is still out there, still paid for by US taxpayer dollars, with a full agenda of ocean blasting before it. The ships' next stops are Gulfport, Mississippi, Astoria, Oregon, Sitka, Alaska, and the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia. Now we move into the next phase of this campaign—insisting that the active sonar and airgun devices permanently be removed from the Maurice Ewing.

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