Beluga Whales at Risk From Oil Plan, Suit Says


     (CN) - Oil and gas exploration in Alaska that requires the use of seismic air guns could kill endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, environmentalists claim in Federal Court.
     The National Marine Fisheries recently granted Apache Alaska Corp. a permit "to take, via harassment, 30 belugas in the first year of what will ultimately be three to five years of seismic surveys," according to the federal complaint.
     Opponents say Apache plans to explore the Cook Inlet for subsurface oil and gas reserves using air guns "that produce some of the loudest underwater sounds short of dynamite." Apache is not a party to the lawsuit.
     "Day and night, for 160 days per year, Cook Inlet will be inundated with high-intensity sound pulses that are greater than 235 decibels at their source - billions of times more intense than the noise thresholds known to compromise foraging and other vital behavior in marine mammals," according to the complaint filed by the Native Village of Chickaloon, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Water Advocacy. "This sound can travel vast distances underwater, and, according to a substantial scientific record, it harms many different marine species, including beluga whales and numerous species of fish."
     Cook Inlet, a 180-mile-long watershed on the south-central coast of Alaska, is a designated critical habitat for the critically endangered beluga whale, a species whose population has dwindled from 1,300 to just 284 in recent years, the environmentalists say. The species allegedly has a 26 percent probability of extinction in 100 years and 70 percent in 300 years.
     Once towed out to sea, air guns "release intense bursts of compressed air into the water about every 10-12 seconds," according to the complaint. "The pulses of sound they produce travel down through the water column, penetrate deep into the seafloor, and rebound to the surface where they can be recorded and analyzed."
     Unlike the sound, however, the toll air guns take on aquatic life is not invisible, opponents say.
     "The ocean is an acoustic environment," according to the complaint. "Marine mammals and many species of fish rely on sound to forage, breed, navigate, communicate, and avoid predators - in short, to survive. These species are therefore particularly vulnerable to, and harmed by, intense underwater noise from seismic surveys. According to the United States Marine Mammal Commission, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, and other preeminent scientific experts, impacts from intense manmade underwater noise range from disruption of biologically critical behaviors - such as feeding, breeding, communicating and nursing - to temporary and permanent hearing loss. In some cases, the noise can cause injury and death."
     Surveys in the Cook Inlet would also harm Steller sea lions, killer whales, harbor porpoises, harbor seals and fish, the groups say.
     Some biologists call the increasing level of ocean noise from human activities "acoustic smog," according to the complaint.
     Opponents say air gun surveys have caused some whales to stop vocalizing or to abandon habitat, and have caused mass strandings of toothed whales in the Gulf of California and Madagascar.
     The authorization is also allegedly discriminatory to native tribes, whom the government bars from hunting Cook Inlet beluga for subsistence uses.
     The Chickaloon say that the government attributed the declining whale population to their hunting, but beluga numbers have continued to plummet since enactment of hunting restrictions in 1999.
     Allowing oil interests to take whales where the Chickaloon cannot allegedly adds insult to injury for the tribe, which calls beluga a vital and thousands-year-old part of its cultural identity. The tribe says other large-scale resource extractions - such as oil and gas drilling, logging and coal, copper and gold mining - also threaten its traditional life.
     The opponents claim that the government refused to give let them voice their concerns over Apache's planned seismic surveys, as requested.
     Before granting a permit and incidental harassment authorization, the government should have prepared an environmental impact statement, according to the lawsuit.
     In lieu of a statement, the agency had to conduct an environmental assessment that reached a finding of no significant impact, the complaint states.
     And though the agency did reach that finding, the opponents say it was based on an skewed assessment that considered only the first year of Apache's survey plans.
     "NMFS based its analysis on an unrevised, outdated, 15-year-old assumption about take levels that some of the world's leading bioacousticians recently urged NMFS to discard - and that ignores the only existing study of airguns and belugas, showing impacts at far greater distances than NMFS has predicted here," according to the complaint.
     Apache's seismic operations are part of the larger Department of the Interior "Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2012-2017," the groups say.
     Numerous oil and gas companies currently operate in Cook Inlet, and have been, since discovery of the first offshore oil in Cook Inlet by Pan American Petroleum in 1962.
     In addition to the current offshore platforms in Cook Inlet, and the numerous oil and gas pipelines running around and under it, Alaska is currently offering competitive leases in Cook Inlet.
     Apache's harassment authorization gives it leeway to take up to 30 belugas, 10 killer whales, 20 Steller sea lions and other species between April 30, 2012, April 30, 2013, according to the complaint.
     The NMFS allegedly called the take of 30 belugas "small numbers," but opponents have taken a different view.
     "Our concern is that, with all the attention on the Arctic, Cook Inlet is falling through the cracks," Center for Water Advocacy President Hal Shepherd said in a statement. "With fewer than 300 beluga left in the Cook Inlet, it is hard to imagine that the Incidental Harassment Authorization could not significantly contribute to their extinction. This is a no brainer for us."
     The groups are suing for violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and National Environmental Policy Act. They say the environmental assessment and harassment authorization should be set aside pending compliance with federal law.
     They are represented by Rebecca Noblin of Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage, Rebecca J. Riley of Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, and Taryn Kiekow of NRDC in Santa Monica.
     The National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Department of Commerce Secretary John Bryson are named as defendants.