(POLITICS) WASHINGTON DC — This week, Friends of Animals and WildEarth Guardians are teaming up to challenge a proposal that would allow Alaskan oil companies to harm marine mammals around prospecting sights. The amended Marine Mammal Protection Act allows for the harming of marine mammals if determined to have a “negligible impact.” This revision can have a serious impact on marine mammals and their ecosystems. Read more to learn about this law loophole and what it means for endangered wildlife. — Global Animal
Steller Sea Lions in their natural Alaskan habitat. Photo Credit: alaska.gov
Steller Sea Lions in their natural Alaskan habitat. Photo Credit: alaska.gov

Friends of Animals

Washington, DC – Friends of Animals, joined in the effort by WildEarth Guardians, submitted public comments this week challenging a regulation proposed by the Interior Department’s Fish & Wildlife Service that would permit oil companies to harm marine mammals near Alaska’s coast.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association petitioned to allow industrial operations that would disturb polar bears and Pacific walruses in a five-year course of commercial prospecting, starting 11 June 2013.  In response, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule in January (Docket ID: FWS-R7-ES-2012-0043), authorizing the “nonlethal, incidental, unintentional take” of the mammals during industry activities in the Chukchi and Bering Seas, and adjacent western coast of Alaska. 

“The Service claims a ‘small number’ of animals will be affected,” said Lee Hall, Vice President of Legal Affairs for Friends of Animals.

“Yet the effects of activities enabled through the proposal, including icebreaking, exploratory boring and drilling, seismic surveys, platform and pipeline surveys—and even the deploying of marine mammal observation vessels to mitigate the disturbances—are serious.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act bars hunting, killing, capture, or harassment of any marine mammal, and the import, export, and sale of these animals, or parts or products derived from them, within the United States. But the amended Act currently allows for the harming of marine mammals—even individuals of endangered or threatened species—if the Fish and Wildlife Service determines the harm has a “negligible impact.”

As an expanding permit system allows the deliberate or foreseeable takes of marine mammals for various industries, the primary purpose of the law gets lost in the shuffle.

“It’s time federal officials stopped using the Marine Mammal Protection Act to exploit marine mammals,” said Peter Wallerstein, who leads Friends of Animals’ Marine Animal Rescue project.

The government acknowledges the possibility of unpredictable effects of spills and waste, in addition to an allowance for various forms of harassment: disrupted migration, breathing, nursing or sheltering.

“Harms to ice-dependent mammals already in peril are potentially far more serious than the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the Service have outlined,” said Hall.

Polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Said Jay Tutchton, General Counsel for WildEarth Guardians, “Development-based prospecting may further shrink Arctic ice habitat in an area already significantly impacted by global warming.”

Thus, the advocacy groups asked the government to “consider the cumulative impacts of prospecting, including icebreaking, as a climate hazard—as well as a hazard to Pacific walruses and polar bears,” pointing to the recent NASA-sponsored discovery of a large algal bloom below the ice of the Chukchi Sea. Such a bloom was previously thought impossible. It completely changes what we know about Arctic ecosystems, and it’s a stark sign of climate change in the far north.

“In a time of melting polar ice caps, icebreaking should incur a moratorium, not government assistance,” the groups’ public comment asserts.

“Polar bears and Pacific walruses cannot afford the risk this rule takes with their only habitat,” said Hall.

More Friends of Animals: http://www.friendsofanimals.org/news/2013/february/halt-coastal-alaska-.html