Washington, DC —The effects of oil spills, seismic blasts and other disturbances flowing from huge federal offshore oil lease sales in the Arctic put the highly endangered bowhead whale at great risk, according to scientific evaluations removed from official reviews and released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Interior Department censored objections and re-wrote the scientific conclusions of its own specialists so as not to impede pending lease sales.
Bowhead whales spend their entire lives in and around Arctic waters. After nearly being hunted to extinction, the population is now slowly recovering with an estimated global population of 9,000. Bowheads migrate from the Bering through the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas – the very areas which the Interior Department is opening up to oil exploration and development. The Chukchi Sea is thought to be their primary calving ground.
In a series of e-mails, Lisa Rotterman, a marine mammalogist formerly with Interior’s Alaska office of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), complained that biological evidence and conclusions disappeared from official assessments, noting in one April 9, 2007 message that “certain key conclusions were changed”. One key issue was how MMS defined a “significant effect” for planning purposes:
“I would point out that this means that, at present growth rates, we could have an impact that would kill a couple thousand whales and we might not deem it significant.”
Another concern Rotterman outlined involved the risks to bowheads from oil spills:
- “Detailed analyses of oil spill risk to bowheads have not been done…”; and
- “[S]ections that refer to the ‘unlikely’ large oil spill should be modified…The overall probability of one or more large spill [sic] in the Chukchi Sea is not at all unlikely. If one considers the joint probability of a spill given [multiple lease sales], it is even less supportable. If one would consider a truly cumulative probability for all sales, it becomes less supportable still.”
“Bowheads and other Arctic wildlife are merely speed bumps in the great polar oil rush,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Any agency scientists who get in the way will be run over, too.”
Perhaps the thorniest problem is the effects of “deep seismic noise” produced by powerful towed arrays used to aid oil exploration by bouncing shock waves off the ocean floor. Bowheads and other whales with delicate acoustical systems are particularly sensitive to this type of disturbance.
Internal e-mails reveal deep uncertainty within MMS about the effects about the effects of this booming noise from vessels crisscrossing the Arctic seas. In a February 26, 2006 exchange, the MMS Alaska Regional Director and other managers grasped for ways to avoid analyzing impacts on the bowhead. Rotterman, the then agency expert, noted –
“Migrating bowheads are very responsive to deep seismic noise…and the most vulnerable segment of the population (females with calves) may be the most responsive….This avoidance at distance cannot be called ‘low risk of impact’. It can only be called ‘low risk of hearing damage’.”
“Interior’s apparent standard is that if the whales have some way to escape having their acoustical systems blown out, then it’s okay – even if the animals are driven out of key feeding areas they have traveled many leagues to reach,” added Ruch, pointing to the similar dangers that powerful Navy sonar arrays pose to whales and other marine mammals. “The motto at Interior should be changed to ‘ignorance is bliss.’”