Belugas Are Dying off in Alaska and Oil and Gas Operations Are to Blame, Says Lawsuit
The suit aims to void permits allowed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that opened up oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet in southern Alaska. The suit alleges that NOAA violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing the permits without protecting Cook Island belugas. The law requires the formal 60-day notice before the agency can be sued, according to The Associated Press.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Cook Inletkeeper teamed up to send notice that they will sue NOAA.
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a disturbing new population estimate last week that showed whale numbers are far lower than previous estimates and their numbers are dropping rapidly, as Reuters reported.
The NMFS report estimated that only 279 beluga whales remain in Cook Inlet, a steep decline from the nearly 1,300 that lived there in 1979. The population decline has accelerated to an annual rate of 2.3 percent over the last decade, which is four times faster than previous estimates, according to NMFS, as Reuters reported.
Cook Inlet runs almost 200 miles from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska. It supplies energy for the south-central part of the state. The industrial activities there threaten beluga whales, which swim there and feast on salmon and other fish, according to The Independent.
The Center for Biological Diversity said these "daunting" numbers mean exploration planned by Hillcorp Alaska needs to stop immediately, as The Independent reported.
The plaintiffs are demanding a new assessment of oil and gas exploration since the Trump administration used higher, inaccurate beluga whale numbers when it gave a permit to Hillcorp Alaska. The permit allows the petroleum company to "take" beluga whales as part of its operations. "Take" is a nebulous term that allows the company to harass and harm whales. The environmental groups want a guarantee that Cook Inlet belugas can recover from any of Hillcorp Alaska's operations, according to The Associated Press.
"Since we pressed for listing the Cook Inlet Beluga whale as endangered in 2008, the drive for corporate profits and complacent government bureaucrats have conspired to stifle progress for this dwindling stock," said Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper, in a statement. "Hilcorp should do the right thing and abandon its plans for new drilling in Cook Inlet."
"The tragic decline of these lovely little whales spotlights the risk of allowing oil exploration in their habitat," said Julie Teel Simmonds, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. "If we're going to save these belugas, the Trump administration must cancel permission for the oil industry to use seismic blasting and pile driving in Cook Inlet. These animals are hanging on by a thread, and we can't let them be hurt even more."The groups said that seismic blasting used in exploration and deep-sea mining causes blasts heard miles away. The blasts can register up to 250 decibels. For reference, standing next to a jackhammer is 100 decibels. Those underwater blasts can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, severely disrupt communication between pods, disturb feeding and breeding grounds, and reduce their ability to catch fish, according to the environmental groups, as The Associated Press reported.
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It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
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