WASHINGTON (CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service proposes to approve an application by Shell Offshore for an Incidental Harassment Authorization to take marine mammals by “Level B” harassment incidental to offshore exploration drilling on Outer Continental Shelf leases in the Chukchi Sea, Alaska.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the agency requests comments on its proposal to allow harassment of 12 species during drilling exploration activity. Level B harassment is activity with the potential to disturb wild marine mammals by disrupting patterns of behavior, such as migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering.
Shell intends to drill up to three exploration wells at five possible drill sites on seven leases at the prospects known as Burger, Crackerjack, and Southwest Shoebill on Outer Continental Shelf leases offshore in the Chukchi Sea, Alaska, during the 2010 Arctic open-water season. Impacts to marine mammals may occur from noise produced by the drillship and supporting vessels and aircraft.
The drillship produces continuous noise under water and above. The agency currently uses a threshold of 120 decibels for the onset of Level B harassment from continuous sound sources. Tests conducted on drillships and their support vessels have produced sound levels ranging from 134 to 175 decibels.
The agency proposes to allow harassment, incidental to drilling operations, of the marine mammals: the bowhead, gray, humpback, minke, fin, killer, and beluga whales; the harbor porpoise; and the ringed, spotted, bearded, and ribbon seals.
The bowhead, humpback, and fin whales are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act, and as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Certain stocks or populations of gray, beluga, and killer whales and spotted seals are listed as endangered or are proposed for listing under the ESA; however, the agency contends none of those stocks or populations occur in the proposed activity area.
Additionally, the ribbon seal is considered a “species of concern” under the ESA, and the bearded and ringed seals are “candidate species” under the ESA, meaning they are currently being considered for listing.
Shell has submitted a separate application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which manages walrus and polar bear populations.
According to its Web site, Earthjustice is representing a coalition of environmental and Native Alaskan groups in challenging the drilling activity before a three judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The groups argue that Shell has not done sufficient research into the possible impact of an oil leak or the sinking of its drillship or tanker vessels.