Study reveals that Bimini dolphins use waters around the BPC exploratory drill site
NASSAU, BAHAMAS — A new study has highlighted potential threats to Bimini’s million-dollar dolphin-watching industry from proposed oil drilling next month.
The research is led by Abaco-based Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organization (BMMRO) senior scientist Dr Charlotte Dunn, and cites Bahamas Petroleum Company’s (BPC) environmental impact assessment (EIA) as lacking.
The study was published yesterday in the scientific journal Aquatic Mammals, and reveals that Bimini dolphins use waters around the BPC exploratory drill site.
It refers to BPC’s EIA, which states that there were “relevant uncertainties and gaps identified are primarily related to lack of primary baseline data for wildlife”.
The study furthers that these “uncertainties” and “gaps” indicate BPC cannot predict what impacts their oil drilling will have on Bahamian marine life, including dolphins and whales.
Dunn said: “The key message from our study is that BPC’s exploratory drill area may be of significant importance to Bimini’s dolphins. Until now, no one knew that Bimini dolphins used waters that far south, highlighting how little is known about wildlife in this remote location and the need for BPC to carry out dedicated marine mammal surveys prior to any drilling to fill these critical gaps in their EIA.”
In a press statement, Dr Diane Claridge, BMMRO’s executive director, questioned why the Bahamian government did not require BPC to fill these gaps before granting the license to drill.
“The risk of oil drilling to air-breathing animals like dolphins is huge,” Claridge said.
“Bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico are still dying from respiratory disease and reproductive failure 10 years after the Deep Water Horizon spill, which occurred at an exploratory well. Some oceanic dolphin populations in the Gulf won’t recover for over 100 years.
“Marine mammals are protected species by law in The Bahamas; we cannot ignore the impacts of oil drilling simply because we lack data. BPC’s EIA is incomplete without baseline data on marine mammals. We know that many species are found in the drill area, but not how large or small these populations are, what threats they currently face, or whether the area includes important habitat for these species.”
Claridge added: “This information is critical to assessing impacts from drilling a test well and future oil exploitation.”
The study reports on an adult Atlantic spotted dolphin (nicknamed “Lamda”) that stranded in the Berry Islands.
Lamda was rehabilitated at Atlantis and released off Bimini a month later with a satellite tag so researchers could monitor its movements.
According to the statement, “Lamda” was a well-known individual in a community of dolphins from Bimini prior to his stranding due to his unique, natural spotting.
After Lamda’s release, the dolphin reportedly traveled about 200 miles south of Bimini along the western edge of Great Bahama Bank until he was south of Guinchos Cay.
The study reports that Lamda spent 13 days in BPC’s proposed exploratory drill area and then another 16 days traveling back north, stopping near Orange Cay before continuing back to Bimini.
Researchers said he remained in the Bimini area until his tag stopped transmitting on February 14, 2019.
According to the BMMRO statement, researchers and dolphin-watchers have reportedly seen Lamda near Bimini 23 times since then.
“ Spotted and bottlenose dolphins commonly occur close to Bimini, leading to a thriving dolphin- watching industry,” the statement read.
“Tourists and filmmakers flock to Bimini to experience the dolphins in our clear turquoise waters, contributing an estimated $1 million to the local economy. Ashley Saunders’ famous ‘Dolphin House Museum’ is a must-see for all visitors to Bimini. ”
Dominic Cox, the museum’s PR manager, expressed the company’s opposition against any drilling for oil amid marine ecosystems.
Cox underscored The Bahamas’ international tourist economy is completely supported by and dependent on the seas that surround the Bahamian islands.
Al Sweeting, the operator of Bimini Adventures, said: “People from all over the world travel to Bimini to see and interact with wild dolphins. Everything possible should be done to protect these dolphins and keep their environment pristine.
“The possible impacts of drilling for oil nearby are truly frightening. But it’s not just the dolphins that would be affected by an oil spill, it’s all our marine life — that’s our groupers, snappers, jacks, tuna, sharks, turtles, you name it; not to mention our coral reefs and beaches. Is it wise to risk a total economic loss to Bimini?”
The BMMRO has joined a growing coalition led by Our Islands, Our Future that is petitioning the Bahamian government to stop the proposed test drilling in December.
Co-authors in the study included scientists from the Wild Dolphin Project and the Dolphin Communication Project, who have been conducting dolphin studies in The Bahamas since 1985; Chicago’s Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program; and Lamda’s rehabilitation team at Atlantis’ Dolphin Cay.
The BMMRO statement continued: “The spill models presented in BPC’s EIA predict that an oil slick could come ashore in Bimini, west Andros, Cay Sal and even in Sandy Point, Abaco (where BMMRO is based), hundreds of miles away. ”
Claridge added: “BPC has been given the go-ahead despite an EIA that is lacking critical information about the marine wildlife which forms the basis of the Bahamian economy. With a planned drill date for December 15th, 2020, BPC appears to be taking advantage of our country as we are struggling with the worst crisis in our history and are ill-prepared to respond.”
Dunn noted oil drilling was not included in the plan submitted by the government’s Economic Recovery Committee, which recommended growth in renewable energies.