NMFS approves plan to harass whales during seismic tests
Emily Yehle, E&E reporter Published: Wednesday, July 20, 2016
The National Marine Fisheries Service will issue a five-year permit that allows Apache Alaska Corp. to harass endangered beluga whales during seismic testing in Cook Inlet.
NMFS announced the final authorization in today's Federal Register. Apache has acquired 850,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Alaska's Cook Inlet, and it plans to use seismic surveys over the next five years to locate mineral deposits.
Beluga whale. Photo courtesy of NOAA.
The surveys -- which use air guns to create images of the geology beneath the seafloor -- gained notoriety in recent months because of a campaign to prevent their use in the Atlantic. The sound can mask whale calls, interrupt feeding and cause hearing loss, but the potential for populationwide impacts is still unclear (Greenwire, Sept. 8, 2015).
Today's authorization would allow Apache to harass up to 30 beluga whales each year out of a total Cook Inlet population of about 300. The species was listed as endangered in 2008; in the Federal Register notice, NMFS notes that the whales "have not made significant progress towards recovery" since then.
The permit requires Apache to follow numerous mitigation measures to reduce harassment to belugas and other marine mammals in the area. If a required observer sees a beluga during a survey, for example, Apache must immediately shut down equipment. The company can also operate underwater air guns only during slack tide periods.
But environmentalists have questioned NMFS authorizations in the past. In 2012, several groups sued NMFS over a similar permit to Apache. The court upheld the permit but ruled that NMFS underestimated the take of beluga whales. The agency, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says it has since changed its calculations. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org