Humpback Whales Return To New York As Atlantic Offshore Drilling Moves Forward

CREDIT: Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

A humpback whale seen off Rockaway, New York.

The Guardian is reporting a summer “wildlife bonanza” in the waters surrounding New York City, brought on in part by an increasingly successful cleanup of the Hudson River, which flows into New York harbor.

The surge in whale and other marine life populations comes less than a month after the Obama administration approved the use of seismic airguns in the waters of New Jersey down to Florida to explore the seabed for oil and gas. The airguns use dynamite-like blasts to produce sound waves 100,000 times louder than a jet engine underwater, sometimes killing and injuring marine mammals.

Though the seismic testing is not happening in New York, the sound waves from the cannons are known to travel hundreds of miles, potentially affecting those humpbacks and other marine life in the area.

For now though, populations are surging. Former New York Aquarium Curator Paul Sieswerda, who now heads up the marine wildlife tracking and research group Gotham Whale, told the Guardian that he’s already seen 29 humpback whales in New York waters from the spring to July. That’s compared to 43 whale sightings for the entire 2013 feeding season — which lasts from spring until winter — 25 sightings in the 2010 season and just five sightings in 2011, the report said.

“The [Hudson] river used to bring nothing but pollution, but in the last five years or so there is cleaner water, more nutrients and less garbage,” Sieswerda said. “My boat captain says New York is the new Cape Cod.”

Much of New York’s 315-mile Hudson River is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site — a federally designated hazardous waste site. One of the largest Superfunds in the country, the Hudson River has been inundated with 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which were discharged into the Hudson from two General Electric manufacturing plants until 1977. PCBs are carcinogenic, causing cancer as well as a variety of other adverse health effects.

GE agreed to a $2 billion cleanup plan, which entailed dredging 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the river. As of November 2013, the EPA was three-quarters of the way toward their final goal, having removed 612,000 cubic yards of sediment that year.

“We’re working toward what once seemed an unobtainable goal, and that is a healthy, vibrant Hudson River,” EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck told reporters at the time.

Sieswerda said the cleaner waters resulting both from the Hudson River cleanup and other conservation and water protection efforts have increased algae growth in the waters surrounding New York. That algae feeds pogy fish, which are a main source of food for humpback whales.

It’s not just whales, either — Siesweda told the Guardian that dolphins, sharks and seals are also on the rise. He noted a colony of harbor seals near Staten Island, which he says has increased to a population of around 66 this year from just 10 in 2006.

Despite the surge, however, humpback whales and other marine life off the East Coast are still at risk from the seismic noise cannons. As Climate Progress’ Ryan Koronowski noted at the time of the approval, these sonic cannons produce piercing sound waves that travel through the water and through the ocean floor, bouncing back up at different rates to provide prospective drillers and researchers a better sense of where oil, gas, minerals, and sand lie beneath the waves.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that this practice will disrupt, injure, or kill millions of marine animals, including the most endangered whale species on the planet.

In addition, some scientists believe the sonic booms go beyond physical injury to the animals, possibly prompting whales to be unable to communicate with one another, according to National Geographic. Marine mammals, the magazine notes, use a variety of sounds to communicate over long distances to find food. Mothers also use sounds to keep track of their calves.

“The long-term effects are not easily observed or clear,” Sofie Van Parijs, who studies acoustics for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, told the magazine. “They may not hear each other as well, find each other, find mates. Socializing, breeding, and foraging may be affected.”

For more pictures of whale sightings around the New York area, Gotham Whale’s staff photographer Artie Raslich has an extensive public collection here.