Background: The Texas-based oil and gas company Hilcorp is poised to start seismic air gun blasting to explore for fossil fuels in the federal waters of Lower Cook Inlet this week. Whale scientists and charter boat captains have documented large numbers of finn, humpback and orca whales feeding in the vicinity of the proposed seismic blasting recently, and fishermen note the southeast corner of the seismic testing zone is the hottest fishing in Lower Cook Inlet right now. Hilcorp has a long history of environmental and worker safety violations during its relatively short tenure in Alaska, and local mariners, fishermen and community leaders remain concerned Hilcorp’s seismic blasting will harm fishing and whale watching businesses that support our local economies. While a Hilcorp scientist recently asserted that seismic air gun blasts will not harm fish, there’s a growing body of science showing the unrelenting percussions from air guns firing at 2000 psi every 3-10 seconds for weeks on end can harm all levels of the marine food chain, from plankton to fish to marine mammals.
Hilcorp’s Seismic Program: This seismic program will consist of a large seismic vessel (the 273’ Polarcus Alima, below) towing 8-10 recording cables (each approximately 1.5 miles long) and a dual array consisting of 14 air guns. These air guns would fire approximately every 2-10 seconds, up to 24 hours a day, for 45-60 days, at a pressure of 2,000 pounds per square inch, and would cover an area of approximately 210 square miles in the heart of Lower Cook Inlet fisheries and whale habitat.
What’s happening now: Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service is taking public comments until September 16 on whether Hilcorp should be allowed to remove marine mammal observers at night time - because it’s too difficult to employ this mitigation measure in the darkness, and Hilcorp wants to blast its air guns 24/7. Some talking points include:
- Hilcorp argues that if they are able to blast around the clock, the operation will be done faster, thus minimizing impacts. This is a fallacy. The same amount of blasting will occur regardless, and may be more impactful if it continues around the clock.
- Researchers have long recognized that seismic air guns can injure or even kill large whales roughly within 500 meters to 1 kilometer of the blasts, depending on offshore water depth and the number of guns firing. Vessels in US waters are required to cease firing when marine mammals are within an unsafe zone. We need to put the science first and require marine mammal observers during all times of testing to minimize this damage. (https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/68/12/1024/5160052)
- NMFS’s proposal to modify its rules to “take” marine mammals incidental to oil and gas activities in Cook Inlet re-iterates how harmful this project will be to belugas and how little NMFS has done to protect them;
- This project will impact a large number of Cook Inlet beluga whales, which are down to just 328 animals and are severely threatened by just three things: noise, catastrophic events, and cumulative impacts – this project poses all these risks. This project will have more than a negligible impact on Cook Inlet beluga whales, which cannot withstand the assault waged against its remaining individuals and their habitat
- NMFS has not ensured it will have the least practicable adverse impact on belugas – and this proposal shows that. NMFS must now reevaluate the predicted “take” numbers for belugas, the least practicable adverse impact analysis, and the negligible impact analysis
- The Cook Inlet marine environment is already under intense stress and the endangered Beluga whale and recent decline of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries are symptoms of this stressed system. We already know that seismic blasting is harmful to marine life, so ensuring that whales are not in direct proximity to the blasting is absolutely necessary to minimizing harm regardless of time of day. If there is going to be around the clock blasting there needs to be around the clock monitoring; if this cannot be accomplished, blasting does should not occur at night.