Federal agency calls for comprehensive approach to beluga protection

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to clarify the nature of the permit that Exxonmobil is applying for. It is an Incidental Harassment Authorization, not a lethal take permit.

Proposed geotechnical work has raised concerns for the beluga whale habitat from the federal agency tasked with enforcing the act protecting marine mammals.

The Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency that enforces the Marine Mammals Protection Act, has taken issue with the National Marine Fisheries Service for approving permits for oil and gas operations that may disturb several species of marine mammals in Cook Inlet. The commission asserts that the agency should not allow the permits because the cause of the decline of the Cook Inlet beluga population is still unknown.

When an oil and gas operator in Cook Inlet thinks marine life might be affected by the activity, the operators apply for an incidental take permit from the federal government. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service share the responsibility for the permits.

In this case, the geophysical and seismic activity being conducted by ExxonMobil Alaska LNG, LLC, BlueCrest Energy and SAExploration Surveys could have effects on several protected species, including the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population.

The Marine Mammal Commission raised concerns particularly for the beluga whales because of the declining population. Vicki Cornish, an energy policy analyst and marine biologist with the commission, said the main concern is that the cause for the continued whale population decline is still unknown.

“There are a number of human and natural forces that could be contributing to the continued demise of beluga whales, we just aren’t sure what the circumstances are,” Cornish said.

The most recent count concluded that there are approximately 340 Cook Inlet beluga whales in the inlet, a slight increase from the previous count. The population may be stabilizing, but the Marine Mammal Commission would like to see the numbers increase and the population recover, Cornish said.

It also seems the whales’ habitat may have shrunk to only occupy the northern part of Cook Inlet, while they used to roam the whole inlet, she said.

“We just don’t know how much of their habitat they’re using throughout the rest of the year,” Cornish said. “There are some acoustic studies being done to try to track the beluga whales throughout the rest of the year, but that information is still being synthesized.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service received an application for an Incidental Harassment Authorization, a type of take permit, for ExxonMobil’s LNG-related activities and is in the process of reviewing it. Public comment closed on March 7. If issued, the permit would authorize the incidental harassment of up to 34 beluga whales, 13 killer whales, 54 harbor porpoises and more than 4,600 harbor seals.

Marine Mammal Commission Executive Director Rebecca Lent wrote a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service urging the delay of any permits proposing sound-based activities until the agency can establish clear criteria that the activities would not harm more than a small number of Cook Inlet belugas.

“Such a conclusion should be based on clear and consistent criteria regarding the (Marine Mammal Protection Act’s) small numbers and negligible impact requirements, the standards for which currently do not exist,” Lent wrote in the letter.

Lent called on the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop a systemic plan to address the cumulative effects of all the marine activities on beluga whales in Cook Inlet. The agency has developed a draft environmental assessment of the activities, and will make the final environmental assessment available when it publishes, said Connie Barclay, the director of NOAA’s Communications and External Affairs office.

“This Environmental Assessment, which analyzes multiple proposed Incidental Harassment Authorizations, is the interim step taken by NOAA Fisheries until a Draft Environmental Impact Statement can be completed,” Barclay wrote in an email.

The draft includes some additional oversight measures, such as annual reports to the National Marine Fisheries Service at the end of the drilling season covering monitoring efforts, marine mammal sightings and weekly reports when in-water surveys take place.

Cornish said the Marine Mammals Commission is most interested in minimizing the overall impact of activity on the whales, and possibly employing tactics like shutting down operations while whales are in close vicinity. But the risks to the whales aren’t just in the geotechnical activities — many kinds of boating traffic and marine activities pose a risk to belugas, such as commercial fishing, recreational boat traffic and changing ocean conditions.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is actively monitoring the whales alongside the Marine Mammal Commission, Cornish said, trying to determine the cause for the whales’ decline and how to help them recover. The other stocks of belugas in Alaska, such as those in Bristol Bay and the Chukchi Sea, are doing well and can help provide a health baseline for biologists studying the whales in Cook Inlet, she said.

“Each animal has value in the environment, and it’s hard for us as people to understand of that,” Cornish said. “All of them are connected, all of them have a role to play.”

 

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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