Permits issued by National Marine Fisheries Service to allow seismic surveys in Alaska’s Cook Inlet have been challenged in Federal Court. Cook Inlet is home to a dwindling population of beluga whales (under 300), and the permits allow behavioral harassment of up to 30 belugas per year. In part, the challenge contends that this likely underestimates the impact, as, “NMFS based its analysis on an unrevised, outdated, 15-year-old assumption about take levels that some of the world’s leading bioacousticians recently urged NMFS to discard – and that ignores the only existing study of airguns and belugas, showing impacts at far greater distances than NMFS has predicted here.” Saying that the Marine Mammal Commission recommended against issuing the permits, the suit claims that NMFS erred in its finding of “no significant impact.”
In addition to three environmental organizations, the Native Village of Chickaloon is party to the lawsuit, saying that NMFS did not fulfill necessary consultation with the tribe, and noting that while the tribe is barred from its traditional hunts due to declining beluga numbers, the permits allow oil and gas development to put whales at risk.
The suit claims that an Environmental Impact Statement should have been prepared, rather than a less comprehensive Environmental Assessment. As covered in previous AEInews posts over the past four years, NMFS has declared parts of Cook Inlet to be essential habitat for the belugas, though the 180-mile long inlet continues to bear the brunt of substantial industrial activity, including the Port of Anchorage and ongoing oil and gas development.