Feds fail to protect endangered Cook Inlet Beluga whales in Alaska

Court finds oil and gas exploration permits violated federal laws

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA (May 30, 2013) –The federal government’s decision to allow oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Cook Inlet violated three federal statutes, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, according to an opinion issued Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason.

“This opinion reaffirms the essential role of science in the permitting process for oil and gas exploration in Alaska and the effects these activities could have on beluga whales and local wildlife,” said Taryn Kiekow, senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The National Marine Fisheries Service must ensure its science and math are error-free when considering future permits.”

The lawsuit, filed in May 2012 by NRDC, Native Village of Chickaloon, Center for Water Advocacy and Center for Biological Diversity, challenged a permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service that authorized Apache Alaska Corporation to explore for oil and gas in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, home to a dwindling population of 312 beluga whales.  Under the permit that expired in April, Apache Alaska Corporation was allowed to “take” up to 30 beluga whales incidental to powerful seismic airgun testing.

  • The court ruled that NMFS underestimated the take of Cook Inlet beluga whales, thereby rendering its calculations “arbitrary and capricious” and its permit to Apache “clearly erroneous” under the law. 
  • In the opinion, the court identified several mathematical errors which resulted in a systematic undercounting of beluga whale takes. 
  • The court ruled in favor of NMFS on other issues, finding that NMFS did not fail in its duty to ensure the availability of belugas for subsistence uses. There is currently no subsistence harvest of Cook Inlet beluga whales.

“With only about 300 belugas left in the Cook Inlet, it is hard to imagine that oil and gas development could not significantly contribute to their extinction,” said Hal Shepherd, president of The Center for Water Advocacy.  “This ruling begins to address the latest threat to their survival.”

“Belugas are sacred to my tribe and part of our tradition,” said Gary Harrison, traditional chief of Chickaloon Native Village. “Because so few of the whales remain, we no longer hunt them. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the United States signed and ratified, states that no people may be deprived of its means of subsistence. Yet NMFS inexplicably continues to authorize oil and gas companies to take Cook Inlet beluga whales, while depriving us the ability to hunt for our subsistence.  It is outrageous that our peoples are not allowed to hunt belugas but that corporations like Apache are allowed to come into Cook Inlet and take belugas.  Sadly, Judge Gleason’s opinion on this point will protect industry, not subsistence users.”

“Cook Inlet is rapidly losing its belugas, and these beautiful animals are irreplaceable,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. “Today’s decision is a step in the right direction toward protecting our local belugas so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy them.”

Apache Alaska Corporation has acquired more than 300,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Cook Inlet. To find and develop oil and gas fields, Apache intends to conduct seismic exploration in the inlet for the next two to four years. 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. 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, and closer in it can cause hearing loss and death.  

Of the five genetically unique beluga populations in Alaska, Cook Inlet belugas number the fewest. The group is under great duress from increasing industrialization of their habitat near Anchorage. In recent years, the population has plummeted from approximately 1,300 to 312 whales.

In April 2006, NRDC and the Center for Biological Diversity joined other conservation groups in petitioning the Fisheries Service to list Cook Inlet belugas as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The government listed the whales as endangered in October 2008 and designated more than 3,000 square miles of the Cook Inlet as critical habitat essential to the whales’ survival in April 2011.

Attorneys for the Natural Resources Defense Council represented the Native Village of Chickaloon, Center for Water Advocacy and Center for Biological Diversity in the May 2012 lawsuit.