Airgun Blasts Set for Alaska–Endangering Beluga Whales


An endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale swims with her calf (Credit: Hollis Europe / Jacob Barbaro, NOAA Fisheries)


Trump Administration OKs Nighttime Airgun Blasts That Threaten Endangered Cook Inlet Beluga Whales

Legal Petition Filed to Halt Blasting That Violates Federal Rule

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Trump administration published a new permit today that aims to allow Hilcorp Alaska to conduct seismic airgun blasting in Cook Inlet at night. But that nighttime blasting violates a federal rule requiring “good visibility” to the “naked eye” to help ensure marine mammals aren’t in the blast zone.

Citing the risk to critically endangered beluga whales, conservation groups today filed a formal request urging federal officials to revoke the permit and not allow nighttime blasting unless the rule is changed.

“Hilcorp continues to play fast and loose with federal environmental rules,” said Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper. “And while the government is supposed to protect marine resources and people, unfortunately it is too busy bending over backward for industry.”

Seismic blasting used in oil exploration can reach 250 decibels and be heard for miles. It can cause hearing loss, disorientation and disturb essential marine mammal behaviors such as feeding and breeding. Just over 300 Cook Inlet beluga whales are left after four more washed up dead in Cook Inlet in the past two weeks.

“Hilcorp’s nighttime airgun blasting violates the requirement to clear the blast zone for endangered beluga whales. This sonic assault needs to stop, right now,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Cook Inlet belugas are smart, sensitive creatures who have nowhere else to go. The Trump administration can’t just cross out federal rules protecting endangered marine mammals to suit Hilcorp’s interests.”

Cook Inletkeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity last month sued the Fisheries Service to overturn the “take authorization” rule it issued in July, which allows disturbance during “good visibility” from April through October. The authorization allows harm to marine mammals from Hilcorp’s seismic oil surveys, pile driving and other offshore-oil development activities over the next five years.

Hilcorp has been aggressively expanding its oil operations in Alaska. The company has repeatedly been fined for safety violations by Alaska regulators, who wrote that “disregard for regulatory compliance is endemic to Hilcorp’s approach to its Alaska operations.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act generally prohibits killing, harming or harassing a marine mammal. While the federal government can authorize industrial activities to harm and harass small numbers of marine mammals, companies must minimize that harm and have no more than a “negligible impact” on the population.

Center for Biological Diversity, Oct. 4, 2019

Categories: Entangled Marine Mammals, Noise Pollution, Offshore Drilling, Seismic Testing, Whales

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