Lawsuit planned to protect Cook Inlet belugas

Cook Inletkeeper and the Center for Biological Diversity have given formal notice of plans to sue the federal government to protect endangered beluga whales from adverse impacts of oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet.

Their announcement on Jan. 31 came in the wake of a decision by federal fisheries officials to authorize Hilcorp Alaska to “take” marine mammals incidental to its operations in Cook Inlet, an authorization that would allow harassment of the belugas.

“Belugas are known as the canaries of the sea because of their songs,” said Bob Shavelson, Inletkeeper and advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper.  They are also the canary in the coal mine, sounding the alarm on their struggle in a struggling ecosystem, he said.

The two environmental groups contend that seismic blasting used in oil exploration can reach 250 decibels and be heard for miles.  It can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding, mask communications between individual whales and also reduce the catch rates of commercial fish.

Shavelson also said that climate change itself is already having dire results on the marine environment. “You can be almost certain it is affecting their food supply,” he said.

Plans are to file the litigation in federal court after the 60-day waiting period has passed.

A biennial survey released in late January by NOAA Fisheries estimates there are now only 250 to 317 whales in Cook inlet, with a median estimate of 279.

According to the report specific reasons for the declining number of belugas are unknown.

A lawsuit filed in September of 2019 by the same two environmental entities against the National Marine Fisheries Service also contended that Hilcorp’s seismic blasting, pile driving and

Other offshore-oil development activities would be harmful to marine mammals.

“In short, Hilcorp is dumping over two billion gallons of toxic substances into beluga whale habitat each year, and under the permit being considered right now by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation they want to dump more,” Shavelson said. “And as mentioned, the technology exists to reinject the wastes, but it’s cheaper to dump them into our fish and whale habitat.”