Spill and Run: Ship Responsible for Oil Spill in Great Barrier Reef Faces Prosecution Following Year-Long Investigation

Great news out of Australia.  The July 2015 spill unleashed 15 tonnes of oil and triggered a response costing some $1.5 million.  The perpetrators have now been identified and will face what appear to be serious consequences.  Read the full story here.


Brazilian Prosecutors Fight to Save the Guiana Dolphin

The Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), or “boto-cinza” in Portuguese, is a symbol of Rio de Janeiro — literally.  The city flag features a pair of red, stylized Guiana dolphins cradling Rio’s coat of arms.


Rio’s flag. Credit: Google Images.



Guiana dolphins (a.k.a. boto-cinza). Credit: Google Images.

Federal prosecutors in Brazil are fighting to make sure this species remains more than just an image on a flag.  Like so many cetaceans, the Guiana dolphin is under siege from multiple angles, absorbing attacks from overfishing (depleting the dolphins’ source of food), by-catch, and habitat modification.  The coastal Guiana dolphin (there is also a freshwater variant) is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).  Its listing in Appendix II signifies that it has an unfavourable conservation status and would benefit significantly from international co-operation.  This determination is echoed in Brazlian wildlife law, where the dolphin is listed as “vulnerable.”

On February 10, the Brazilian federal prosecutors’ office (Federal Prosecution Service or Ministério Público Federal, in Portuguese) issued a document detailing the critical state of affairs and requesting immediate action by public and private actors.

In coordination with the prosecutors’ office, Sea Shepherd Legal has agreed to disseminate this document and its central message:  Absent significant and rapid change, the Guiana dolphin could well disappear from the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region in southern Rio de Janeiro.  (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a link to the document, in Portuguese.)


Map of the state of Rio de Janeiro, with Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande in the lower left-hand corner, near the border with Sao Paulo. Credit: Google Images.

The highest number of Guiana dolphins registered in Brazil — and in the world — is found between the cities of Itaguai, Mangaratiba, and Angra dos Reis, all three of which hug the Baia de Sepetiba.

Yet, as the Ministério Público Federal explains, the Guiana dolphins in Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande have been decimated in recent years.   In 2002/2003, a population study identified approximately 1,300 individuals.  Today, there are fewer than 800   That’s a drop of roughly 40% in just over a decade.


Percentage of carcasses recovered in Baia de Sepetiba, by year (2005-2015).                      Credit: Instituto Boto Cinza.


Why is the local population crashing?  The causes are manifold.  Here are a few of the more important factors (per the Ministério Público Federal):

  • Overfishing of prey species
  • Incidental capture (by both commercial and artisanal fishermen)
  • Pollution
  • Decreased habitat
  • Increased boat traffic
  • Port development
  • Other industrial and urban development in coastal regions

The combined harm from all these sources has produced a scenario where the Guiana dolphin may be entirely wiped out from Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande — and all of Rio state — in ten years’ time.

As this list of factors suggests, this truly is a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario for the dolphins.  But some cuts go deeper than others — and, perhaps ironically, some of the deepest cuts also seem to be the most preventable.  For instance, the federal government plans to double the size of the channel that runs through the heart of the dolphins’ habitat in Baia de Sepetiba.  Vessel traffic will double from approximately 1,800 vessels per year to 3,600 vessels per year.  The vessel traffic displaces dolphins, which then die in fishing nets.  The noise interferes with echolocation.  And this is to say nothing of the harm produced by dredging and explosions associated with the project in the first instance.

As bad as that is, the harm is compounded by the activities of artisanal, commercial, and illegal fishing operations, mainly targeting tuna.  The increased vessel traffic through the channel is displacing dolphins and fisherman, corralling them into a smaller region.  This has resulted in increased human-dolphin interactions and extremely high by-catch and mortality.

What’s more, according to the federal prosecutors’ office, fisheries enforcement in the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region is “practically zero.”  Even if the vessel traffic remained constant, effective fisheries enforcement could at least reduce by-catch by limiting illegal fishing, fishing with prohibited gear, and so forth.  As is, the token enforcement efforts have not reduced dolphin mortality one bit.

Besides all this, there are slews of vessels that anchor right in the middle of the dolphins’ favored areas of concentration. This is yet one more controllable factor that is displacing the dolphins toward fishing nets, toward death.

All this bad news notwithstanding, there is reason for hope.  The federal prosecutors’ office has made this issue a priority and is putting pressure on the major players — public and private alike — to avert disaster.  Among other measures, the prosecutors’ office is calling for:

(1) The creation of a coalition police force to monitor and respond to illegal and excessive fishing, with mandatory patrols in the bay every week.

(2) The preparation of a technical study by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) to verify the need for changes in fishing practices and regulations in the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region.

(3) The formation of a new group under the auspices of the State Environmental Institute (INEA) — the primary body involved in project licensing in the bay — with the task of reassessing mitigation measures to improve conditions for conservation.  To add credibility to this group, the federal prosecutors have requested the participation of the Instituto Boto Cinza.

(4) The creation of a new plan by INEA to promote community-based tourism as an alternative source of income for local fishermen.

(5) The immediate cessation of any additional licensing by INEA that could cause harm to the dolphins and their habitat, pending additional scientific study.

(6) The prohibition, by the port authority in Rio de Janeiro, of anchoring in the dolphins’ favored areas of concentration.

The prosecutors’ office has given the relevant public authorities 10 days to respond to its report and recommendations for policy changes.  We will be following the story and will keep our readers abreast of important developments.

In closing, we congratulate the Ministério Público Federal for its brave and important efforts to save these beautiful creatures.   Sea Shepherd Legal looks forward to assisting this campaign in any way it can.  Keep up the good fight!


Link to document from Brazil’s Ministério Público Federal: Recomendação 5-2016 – diversas autoridades – Boto-Cinza – IC 153-2014-17

Silence is Golden: SSL Opposes Seismic Surveys in the Atlantic Ocean

In 1953, Jacques Cousteau referred to our oceans as “the silent world.”  While that may have been the case around mid-century, the situation today is just the opposite.  According to Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University, “If you could lay down under the shipping lanes at Great South Channel (off Cape Cod) and spend the day there, you would get the impression of being on the tarmac at Logan Airport.”  For marine mammals, this amount of noise pollution produces shocking effects.

Marine mammals have evolved over millions of years to thrive in our oceans.  Until recently, the marine environment has been characterized by a certain class and degree of natural sounds.  Marine mammals evolved against this background, developing acute hearing, communication skills, and echo-location abilities attuned to natural sound levels.  In the past several decades, we have cranked up the volume to deafening levels.  For instance, low-frequency background noise in the ocean has increased 32-fold since the 1950’s.  This is hardly surprising:  Since 1950, the worldwide commercial fleet has also grown exponentially, in terms of number of vessels and especially in terms of gross tonnage.  When we add offshore drilling and mining to the mix, marine habitats have suddenly become host to a racket of block-party proportions.

For marine mammals, this noise has tragic consequences.  The impacts include:

  • Drowning out social communications used to find mates or identify predators;
  • Temporary and permanent hearing loss or impairment;
  • Displacement from preferred habitat;
  • Disruption of feeding, breeding, and nursing;
  • Mass strandings; and
  • Death and serious injury from hemorrhaging and tissue trauma
One of twelve sperm whales that beached and died on Karekare beach in New Zealand in late 2003. Credit: iStockphoto

One of twelve sperm whales that beached and died on Karekare beach in New Zealand in late 2003. Credit: iStockphoto

With this in mind, SSL has taken a firm stand against proposed seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean.  In comments submitted to NMFS (available here: SSL Comments in Response to Applications for Incidental Harassment Authorization Re Geophysical Survey Activity Atlantic Ocean_Final_2), SSL urged the agency to reject applications by oil and gas companies seeking permission to “incidentally harass” marine mammals while conducting seismic surveys.

Not only would these “surveys” — a dangerous euphemism if one ever existed — wreak havoc on cetaceans and other marine life, they would also directly violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s (MMPA) prohibition against anything beyond “negligible impact.”  Pursuant to Sections 101(a)(5)(A) and (D) of the MMPA, the Secretary of Commerce may allow the incidental, but not intentional, take of small numbers of marine mammals.  To permit incidental take, NMFS must find that proposed take will have only a “negligible impact” on the species or stocks. “Negligible impact” is defined in 50 CFR 216.103 as “an impact resulting from the specified activity that cannot be reasonably expected to, and is not reasonably likely to, adversely affect the species or stock through effects on annual rates of recruitment or survival.”

Here, all the evidence suggests that the contemplated “surveys”  —  involving the incessant firing of huge arrays of underwater air guns — will have far more than a “negligible impact.”  For threatened and endangered species such as the fin whale, humpback whale, North Atlantic right whale, sei whale, sperm whale, and West Indian manatee, these surveys would push them one step closer to extinction.  For the North Atlantic right whale, the situation is particularly dire.  This species numbers only 455 individuals.  As NMFS has acknowledged, “the loss of even a single individual [North Atlantic right whale] may contribute to the extinction of the species.”  See 69 Fed. Reg. 30,857, 30,858 (June 1, 2004); see also 73 Fed. Reg. 60,173, 60,173 (Oct. 10, 2008); 72 Fed. Reg. 34,632, 34,632 (June 25, 2007); 66 Fed. Reg. 50,390, 50,392 (Oct. 3, 2001).

Of course, the exploratory surveys would be but a prelude to drilling.  The ultimate goal (extraction) would simply increase the pressure on these species, all while exacerbating climate change.

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What the Frack?! SSL Launches Investigation of Offshore Fracking, with Briefing Series on the Way

Williston, North Dakota; the Alberta tar sands; the Marcellus Shale. In recent years, these names have become synonymous with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking – especially unconventional fracking, used to access shale rock, coal beds, and oil sands — is associated with the use of toxic chemicals, water and soil contamination, and heightened risk of earthquakes.  With movies like “Gasland” and multiple features on National Public Radio, these impacts have become well-known.

Vice fracking slick

Oil slick from fracking activities. Photo credit: Vice.com

Fracking, however, is not just a terrestrial phenomenon. In many parts of the world, including in the United States, oil and gas companies are taking to the seas. The details of these offshore fracking ventures are shrouded in the mist; we know that some companies have been engaged in marine fracking for decades, while others are just getting into the game. Unfortunately, it appears that the law has been an accomplice in keeping these operations shielded from the public eye, excluding certain fracking operations from normal scrutiny.

Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) plans to change all that. In partnership with Lewis & Clark Law School’s International Environmental Law Project (IELP), SSL is launching a comprehensive investigation to pull back the curtain on marine fracking.  Our work in this area will include the development of maps and briefing papers to help the public better understand the impacts of offshore fracking, what chemicals and processes are employed, where it is taking place, and by whom it is financed.  

Only recently has the public learned that the U.S. has been permitting offshore fracking for decades.  Most of the regulated events occurring as part of the fracking process are subject to dated regulations or exceptions, such as categorical exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act.  Our goal is to understand the current U.S. regulatory regime in order to build a more protective system.  To accomplish this latter goal, we plan to use all tools at our disposal, including administrative engagement and litigation.

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Nota: Una traducción al español estará disponible muy pronto.