Cook Inlet beluga whales – they’re beautiful. Melodious. Highly intelligent. And critically endangered. There are only 284 of them left on the planet.
Yet the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently issued a permit that authorizes Apache Alaska Corporation to “take” 30 beluga whales every year incidental to the company’s oil and gas exploration in waters designated as critical for the whales’ survival.
Today NRDC, Chickaloon Native Village, the Center for Water Advocacy and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit challenging that permit.
Apache Alaska intends to conduct seismic exploration in Cook Inlet over the next three to five years in order to find and develop oil and gas fields. Every year that Apache conducts its survey operations it will spend 160 days surveying the Inlet for oil and gas, 24 hours per day. For 10 to 12 of those hours, Apache will deploy in-water airguns, operate pingers, and detonate explosives.
Airguns barrage marine mammals with underwater sound, impacting their ability to feed, breed, navigate, communicate and avoid predators – in short, to survive. As my colleague Michael Jasny described: “Imagine dynamite going off in your neighborhood every 10-12 seconds for days, weeks, and months on end. Now imagine that you can’t see, and depend on your hearing to feed and do just about everything else you need for survival.” That’s what this highly endangered population of beluga whales will face in the Cook Inlet.
NRDC’s factsheet outlines the harmful effects of seismic surveys. For example, airgun noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, destroying their capacity to communicate and breed. It can drive whales to abandon their habitat and cease foraging; closer to the airgun, it can cause hearing loss and death. Seismic airguns have also been shown to depress catch rates of commercial fish over thousands of square kilometers.
Because a seismic airgun array is capable of flooding substantial portions of Cook Inlet – including the critical habitat of the Cook Inlet beluga whale – with highly disruptive sound, the surveys that NMFS has authorized will harm the entire marine ecosystem, including the same endangered population of beluga whales again and again and again.
Seismic surveys will drown these iconic whales in unfamiliar sound, creating an impossible scenario for their survival.
This is why NRDC and our coalition partners in Alaska are challenging NMFS to protect Cook Inlet beluga whales. We are fighting to ensure that these iconic whales have a chance for survival.
Photo credit: NOAA