State Department criticized over foreign research vessel issues

PEER: foreign researchers should meet same standards as domestic vessels

State Department procedures for approving foreign vessels to conduct scientific research in U.S. waters are being challenged by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which contends that these foreign vessels are not meeting the standards required of domestic researchers.

A statement released in mid-April by PEER contends that the State Department is approving this foreign vessel research without requiring that these vessels get the same permits domestic researchers must or monitoring their activities. PEER noted the largest recorded beaching of rare Bering Sea beaked whales while Japanese whaling researchers operated nearby.

“Foreign researchers should abide by the same marine resource safeguards and disclosure requirements as domestic research vessels,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, who sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken outlining suggested reforms.

These issues came to light after Rick Steiner, a marine conservation expert formerly with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and a PEER Board Member, tried to track down the cause for the 2018 mass beaching of Stejneger’s beaked whales (sometimes called Bering Sea Beaked Whales or saber-toothed whales) on the shore of Adak, Alaska, in the Aleutians. The Alaska Volcano Observatory recorded pulsed, manmade sounds in the water just before the stranding, leading to the suspicion that these acoustic sources caused the stranding deaths, as they are known to drive deep-diving whales to the surface, causing fatal decompression effects.

In March 2021, Steiner submitted FOIA requests to NOAA, the Navy, and the U.S. Geological Survey. All were answered in a timely fashion and indicated that there were no domestic vessels, military or research, permitted to conduct active acoustic activity in the area in 2018.

Steiner then learned that there had been three Japanese research ships in the Bering Sea in the summer of 2018 that had been approved to conduct cetacean “research” using acoustic sonobuoys in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands for the International Whaling Commission. Such research activities are required to obtain Incidental Take/Harassment Authorizations, but NOAA confirms that no authorizations were issued for such work in Alaska that year. To date, the source of the recorded (illegal) underwater sounds waters that may have caused the mass stranding remains undetermined.

Foreign marine scientific research approvals are the exclusive province of the State Department, which PEER contends is slow-walking Steiner’s FOIA request he made last May. PEER is now suing the State Department, seeking immediate production of all the foreign consent letters and approved research specifications for calendar year 2018.

“With the current arcane, uncoordinated, and wholly nontransparent system for approving foreign research vessels, we have no idea how many other marine atrocities remain to be uncovered,” Steiner said. “This process needs to be fixed.”