Oil exploration threatens Georgia state marine mammal

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Exploration for oil and gas deposits under the sea floor threatens the existence of an official symbol of Georgia, the North Atlantic right whale, according leading marine scientists.

An international group of 28 leading right whale researchers wrote an open letter to President Obama last week stating that seismic oil and gas surveys planned in the waters between Delaware and Florida would significantly impact right whales, an endangered species numbering about 500 animals, and "would jeopardize its survival," the Savannah Morning News reported.

They cite other increasing dangers to this species, whose coast-hugging habits earned it the nickname of the "urban whale." The whales already face entanglement in fishing gear and injuries from boat strikes. Recent studies suggest its population is no longer increasing and may be declining.

"The additional stress of widespread seismic airgun surveys may well represent a tipping point for the survival of this endangered whale, contributing significantly to a decline towards extinction," wrote the experts from institutions including Cornell University, the New England Aquarium, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Georgia designated the critically endangered right whale as its official state marine mammal in 1985, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Georgia's coastal waters are a calving area for the right whale, and it's the only great whale native to Georgia waters. A below average count of fourteen baby right whales were spotted in the most recent calving season, which ended at the beginning of April.

The Obama administration recently excluded the Atlantic from oil and gas leasing over the next five years, but that decision didn't extend to the ongoing permitting process for seismic exploration. Eight permits are awaiting approval from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Another 13 million animals would be "disturbed" showing behavioral changes such as swimming away. Mitigation measures would reduce those numbers, BOEM officials say.

The scientists asked for a withdrawal of the Interior Department's 2014 decision to introduce oil and gas surveys and a halt to permitting of oil and gas surveys off the East Coast.