A lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service has been settled in District Court in Anchorage. Native and environmental groups took issue with some of the math the agency used to calculate how many Cook Inlet Beluga whales would be affected by seismic testing for oil and gas.
NMFS issued permits to Apache Corporation for that kind of testing last year. But the plaintiff’s group in this case didn’t like the way the agency projected the number of whales that might swim through these testing zones.
Rebecca Noblin is the Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. They joined the Chickaloon Native Village and the Natural Resources Defense Council as plaintiffs.
“Basically, the National Marine Fisheries Service didn’t account for the number of Belugas that would be under water when they counted how many Belugas would be harmed and harassed by the company’s activity. So as a result, they really underestimated how many whales might be harmed as a result,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska Director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
They joined the Chickaloon Native Village and the Natural Resources Defense Council as plaintiffs.
The plaintiff’s group logged several complaints about the permits, but this is the only one that stuck. The real problem is that they based the number of whales that would be affected on an aerial survey, but didn’t correct that estimate for whales that can’t be observed in that kind of survey.
“So that correction factor was used for the overall estimate of the whales in the Inlet for our population estimate, but it was not used when we estimated the actual animals that were in this area that would be affected by the project,” said Brad Smith, Supervisory Administrator for NMFS’ Protected Resources Division.
So, because there were some errors in these calculations, the court found that the agency’s limit for takes of whales was arbitrary and capricious. That limit was 30 whales per year. About ten percent of the total population.
A ‘take’ in this circumstance doesn’t necessarily mean a kill. The permits issued are called IHA’s. Incidental Harassment Authorization. That can mean a couple different things, but basically, it means disturbing a marine mammal by conduct ranging from incidental harassment to killing.
For Apache’s part, they did have a mitigation plan in place that NMFS was okay with. If Belugas started swimming into a testing area, they would pause or stop testing.
“They would have the observers on board the seismic vessel with binoculars and looking during daylight hours when visibility allowed them to see whether whales were coming in this zone at the point where they may be harassed,” Smith said.
And beside that, Smith says Belugas tend to cluster; usually where they can get a fill of salmon near river mouths and not necessarily near testing zones. He says one testing zone is in an area where no whales have been observed by aerial survey.
“That’s not to say that we wouldn’t expect them to be found or to occur in the area where we expected most of the seismic noise to be found during the surveys, but rather the distribution is going to be clustered and most of the whales are not going to be in those areas but rather at the mouths of those salmon streams,” Smith said.
NMFS has reworked their math and Apache is operating under a new batch of permits, but Noblin says a new approach is needed; that the focus of the agency should be more precautionary and look at all the activity going on in Cook Inlet. Apache, after all, is not the only company doing business out there, and oil and gas development isn’t the only activity.
“There’s shipping and there’s pollution from Anchorage and there’s all sorts of things going on in Cook Inlet that can impact Beluga whales. The National Marine Fisheries Service is the only agency that can really get a handle on everything impacting Beluga whales and balance all those competing interests,” she said.
The permits Apache applied for allow for testing at both 180 decibels and 160 decibels. How loud is that? Well, back when NASA was still in the space shuttle business, they had to use a sound suppression system during launch so they wouldn’t damage the cargo with excessive sound pressure. NASA kept the volume under 145 decibels.