A hearing on the threat seismic testing poses to North Atlantic right whales was plodding along Thursday when Rep. Joe Cunningham pulled out an air horn and politely asked whether he could blast it.
Before that moment at a Natural Resources subcommittee hearing, Cunningham, D-S.C., had listened to a Trump administration official testify, over and over, that firing commercial air guns under water every 10 seconds in search of oil and gas deposits over a period of months would have next to no effect on the endangered animals, which use echolocation to communicate, feed, mate and keep track of their babies. It's why the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave five companies permission to conduct tests that could harm the whales last year, said the official, Chris Oliver, an assistant administrator for fisheries.
As committee members engaged in a predictable debate along typical party lines - Republicans in support of testing and President Donald Trump's energy agenda, Democrats against it - Cunningham reached for the air horn, put his finger on the button and turned to Oliver.
"It's fair to say seismic air gun blasting is extremely loud and disruptive . . . is that correct?" the congressman asked.
"I don't know exactly how loud it is. I actually never experienced it myself," Oliver replied.
So Cunningham gave Oliver a taste of the 120-decibel horn. An ear-splitting sound filled the small committee room. An audience of about 50 gasped and murmured.
"Was that disruptive?" Cunningham asked.
"It was was irritating, but I didn't find it too disruptive," Oliver said.
It seemed disruptive to at least one person in the room. Subcommittee Chairman Jared Huffman, D-Calif., broke into the debate to say an aide, who is pregnant, informed him that when the air horn sounded, her baby kicked.
Cunningham, who represents Charleston and other coastal cities, pressed on. What if it happened every 10 seconds for days, weeks and months, he said. He asked Oliver to guess how much louder commercial air guns are than his store-bought air horn. When Oliver didn't bite, he told him the sound from air guns is 16,000 times that of his air horn.
Five companies are awaiting final permits from the Interior Department to begin testing between New Jersey and Florida. An estimated 400 North Atlantic right whales, hunted to the brink of extinction, survive. A birth among the 100 mating pairs is so rare that seven calves spotted recently were celebrated as a tiny glimmer of hope.
Every governor on the Eastern Seaboard from Massachusetts to Florida, Republicans and Democrats, stands in opposition to the Trump administration's proposal to offer federal offshore leases along the Atlantic coast, where beach tourism thrives. The governors are backed by state attorneys general and legislators.
Although Cunningham's stunt was the highlight of an ordinary hearing, Democrats could not shake the administration's argument that there is no evidence showing that seismic testing has ever killed or significantly hurt a right whale in the Gulf of Mexico or Pacific Ocean, where testing has happened recently.
Oliver said right whales are more commonly killed by boat strikes and getting entangled in fishing nets, and that NOAA Fisheries is focused on stopping that. He emphasized that studies have shown some adverse impacts from seismic testing but that those "are sublethal."
But that testimony was followed by testimony from whale experts who described what sublethal means. Scott Kraus, a vice president and senior science adviser for the New England Aquarium, said the tests will stress out an animal that's already struggling from lack of disease resistance.
"Many right whales now have poor body scores that are just above the threshold of reproductive success, suggesting that any additional stressors . . . will push them below any ability to reproduce," Kraus said.
Christopher Clark, a senior scientist and research professor at Cornell University, said there is nowhere for animals to hide from seismic noise. It travels efficiently underwater, radiating for thousands of miles from where it starts. The bowhead whale, a close relative of right whales, reacts to extremely low levels of seismic noise from far away.
"It continues reacting until it totally stops communicating," Clark said. "For right whales, such changes will increase the likelihood of mother-calf separations." It's not physical harm to a single individual, he said, but "this is the cost to a marginally surviving population as a result of chronic noise from seismic air gun surveys."