Belugas in Alaska have seen a consistent drop in population over the last 25 years. Where once they numbered over 1300, estimates now put them closer to 275. Much of this was the result of native whale hunting, but due to the declines the tribes responsible have voluntarily ceased their activities to preserve the whales. The Apache Alaska Corp., however, has no such intentions of halting its oil exploration activities if it can help it.
The plan for Apache is to explore for new oil sources 160 days out of the year. Approximately 10 to 12 hours of this exploration will use seismic methods which are known to cause serious problems for whales. The loud noises interfere with whale calls and can prevent them from being able to find mates and breed, as well as confusing them into leaving their habitat. In extreme cases, whales can end up deafened or even killed by the noise.
The four conservation groups involved claim that the NMFS wrongly issued the exploration permits that Apache needed to conduct the seismic testing. The permits were issued against the recommendations of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. The NMFS made their own statement that the testing would pose no significant threat to the beluga whale populations, despite those recommendations. With an endangered species that sees population declines every single year, isn’t the loss of even one whale considered significant?
It comes down to a question of whether the NMFS is doing their job properly or just pandering to the interests of business and a government that thinks of the economy first and whales second. Back in 2008, when belugas were declared endangered, the Alaskan government tried to fight the ruling, stating that the conservation of these whales would hurt industry and the economy of the port of Anchorage. In spite of their protests, more than 3000 square miles were designated as critical habitat for the belugas. Now, those waters are in danger again due to this new threat of seismic testing. Hopefully, the temptations of money will not override the need for these whales to be protected and this lawsuit will have the desired outcome.