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Planned Oil Operations in Beaufort and Chukchi Seas Challenged

Alaska Natives and conservation groups ask for protection for marine mammals
May 5, 2008

Endangered bowhead whales can be found in the Chukchi Sea.
Photo: Sue Moore/NOAA
Juneau, AK — 
Alaska Natives and conservation groups are joining forces to stop oil and gas related seismic activity planned for this summer in the Arctic's Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that could be detrimental to scores of marine mammals -- including endangered and threatened species. The groups filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Anchorage today to challenge the premature issuance of federal permits for seismic surveys by Shell Oil and British Petroleum. The Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska's north coast are collectively known as the Polar Bear Seas.

"Oil operations will not just hurt our community 'Tikigaq'  Point Hope, but will hurt all of the hunting communities," said Emma F. Kinneeveauk, Environmental Program Manager for the Native Village of Point Hope, a federally recognized tribal government. "If oil is found, there are going to be lots of ships going back and forth and this is going to interrupt the animals' migratory routes. They won't come around anymore. We hunters will have a hard time finding the food we are used to eating; it is going to hurt our way of life."

The suit alleges the government violated the National Environmental Policy Act by issuing geological and geophysical permits before completing an environmental impact statement. It additionally charges that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act by issuing an Incidental Harassment Authorization that allows Shell to "take" by harassment several species of seals and whales during seismic surveys. The fisheries service will likely issue additional permits to allow Shell, BP, and several other companies to harass seals and whales throughout this summer and fall.

The Polar Bear Seas support endangered bowhead whales, beluga whales, gray whales, several seal species, Pacific walrus, polar bears, and about 100 fish species. In addition, endangered humpback whales have begun to migrate into the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in recent years. Many of these species provide important subsistence resources to Native Alaskans.

Seismic work involves the use of underwater air guns that generate extremely loud noise -- a single blast is 10 times louder than a rocket launch, and the blasts occur every 10 to 15 seconds for days, weeks and even months at a time. These sounds carry through the water for hundreds of miles and have been known to cause permanent hearing loss in marine mammals. They can disrupt their feeding, migration, social bonding, predator avoidance, and have been associated with stranded whales. They also can interfere with Native Alaskans' ability to hunt for these subsistence food sources, particularly the bowhead whale.  

Clayton Jernigan of Earthjustice, who has moved for an injunction to block the permits on behalf of the groups listed below, said, "The government is allowing the oil companies to bombard the Arctic ocean around the clock with noise that's as loud as an underwater volcanic eruption -- loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss and otherwise seriously injure seals, walrus, and whales. Even the oil companies admit that a single survey can disrupt the feeding or resting of tens of thousands of seals and whales, including thousands of endangered bowhead whales."

The REDOIL Network, an Alaska Native grassroots organization that resists unsustainable fossil fuel development and includes members of the Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Tlingit, Gwich'in, Eyak, and Dena'ina Athabascan tribes, joined the suit because of their concerns about the effects of seismic activities on Native Alaskans.

"Inupiat subsistence hunters have said that offshore seismic testing has seriously harmed Chukchi and Beaufort Sea marine mammals in the past, and has actually caused them loss of hunting," said Faith Gemmill, Campaign Organizer for Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL). "These communities live from the bounty of the seas; it is immoral for the federal government to permit activities that threaten their livelihood."

Under the provisions of the MMPA, NMFS may authorize the incidental taking by harassment of only "small numbers" of marine mammal population stock. NMFS, however, authorized Shell to harass huge numbers of marine mammals -- over 40,000 in total -- including nearly 40 percent of the population of beluga whales in the Chukchi Sea and more than 20 percent of the endangered bowhead whales that feed and calve in the Polar Bear Seas.

"The federal government must stop pandering to the oil companies and start giving these mammals, that are already living in stressed conditions, the protections they are due," said David Dickson, Western Arctic and Oceans Program Director at the Alaska Wilderness League. "We are asking them to follow the law."

Although oil companies are required to use shipboard observers to monitor the surface of the water and order seismic air guns to shut down when marine mammals come close enough to suffer physical injury, recent experience shows that these measures are inadequate. Monitoring reports from 2006 and 2007 show that scores of seals, several whales (gray and bowhead) and about 50 walrus suffered exposure to extremely high noise levels before air guns were shut down. Many more animals may have been exposed during rough seas, fog, and rain when they are hard to spot, or during periods of darkness when observers were not on watch.

 "All of the marine mammals of the Arctic are under severe threat from global warming and should not be subjected to further harm," said Brendan Cummings, Oceans Program Director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Yet the planned seismic surveys would subject literally tens of thousands of these already imperiled animals to dangerously loud sounds."

This summer and fall as many as five companies are expected to conduct various types of seismic surveys using nine seismic source vessels that will fire air guns around the clock. This is the highest level of seismic operations seen yet -- in 2006, three companies operated in the Chukchi Sea.

"This type of devastating exploration just isn't worth it. You end up killing animals that Americans care deeply about, while not doing a thing to lower the price of gas at the pump," said Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Shell and BP say they're investing in renewable energy, yet here they are exploiting what we will show are illegally granted permits to reinvest billions in the dirty fuels of the past to ensure Americans stay addicted to oil."

Last September as part of separate litigation, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary injunction blocking Shell from drilling for oil in the Beaufort Sea because of risks to polar bears and endangered whales. A final ruling in that case is expected any day. The plaintiffs' complaint was based, in part, on the lack of information about wildlife populations and habitat that would enable adequate evaluation of effects on bowhead whale migration and feeding. Since that ruling, Shell has conducted aerial surveys and discovered that approximately one-third of the total population of bowhead whales feeds in that area off the north coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea.

The plaintiffs in the case filed today are Native Village of Point Hope, REDOIL, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Pacific Environment. The plaintiffs are represented by the public interest law firm Earthjustice. 

Read the motion for preliminary injuction (PDF)

Read the complaint (PDF)


Contact:
Clayton Jernigan/Tom Waldo, Earthjustice, (907) 586-2751
Emilie Surrusco, Alaska Wilderness League, (202) 544-5205
Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232, ext. 304
Julia Bovey, Natural Resources Defense Council, (202) 289-2420
Faith Gemmill, REDOIL, (907) 750-0188
Lily Tuzroyluke, Native Village of Point Hope, (907) 368-2330