ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) - Mathematical errors tainted approval of a seismic survey program that is harming endangered beluga whales in Alaska, a federal judge ruled.
"Seismic surveys use high-energy, low-frequency sound in short pulse durations to determine substrates below the sea floor, such as gas and oil deposits," according to the ruling.
In April 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued Apache Alaska Corp. a permit to "take by harassment" up to 30 beluga whales while conducting such surveys in Cook Inlet, Alaska.
Apache Alaska's oil and gas leases in Cook Inlet cover over 300,000 acres. The permit authorized the company to conduct 24-hour surveys using explosives and seismic air guns for 10 to 12 hours a day for 160 days.
The Native Village of Chickaloon and three nonprofits then filed suit, challenging the Incidental Harassment Authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
They say air gun noise interferes with the ability of whales to "communicate and breed," causes them to leave their habitat, and can "cause hearing loss and death."
Belugas are small, toothed mammals distinguished by their pure white skin and lack of dorsal fin. They typically grow between 12 and 14 feet long and weigh around 3,150 lbs., according to the National Marine Fisheries Service's website.
The Cook Inlet whales are the only endangered population of beluga. Their numbers were around 1,300 in the 1970s, but have shrunk to a mere 300 as a result of threats like shipping, oil and gas production, and pollution, the agency said.
Cook Inlet's beluga whales joined the list of endangered species in October 2008 thanks to efforts by the National Resources Defense Counsel and the Center for Biological Diversity, both plaintiffs in the action. The government also "designated more than 3,000 square miles of the Cook Inlet as critical habitat essential to the whales' survival in April 2011," the NRDC said.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason found Tuesday that the Fisheries Service miscalculated when it concluded that the surveys would result in the harassment of 30 belugas.
"Applying the uncorrected survey data to the corrected total population abundance resulted in an underestimation of the percentage of the beluga whale population that would be encountered in the survey area," Gleason wrote.
"NMFS asserts that any inaccuracies in the density estimates are immaterial because the agency has authorized a take of no more than 30 beluga whales and has required '"real-time" monitoring to insure that this authorized take amount is not exceeded,'" she added. "But NMFS has not shown that Apache's monitoring will detect all beluga whales in the safety radii."
Gleason emphasized that "the amount of correction has been significant."
"In most years, the aerial survey count has been approximately one-half or two-thirds of the total population abundance estimate after correction," the ruling states.
Gleason said these miscalculations make the agency's incidental take calculations "arbitrary and capricious."
She emphasized that the ruling "does not resolve the extent to which those mathematical errors may impact other aspects of the agency's decision-making."
Though the 2012 permit expired, "a new permit is now in place that is effective from March 1, 2013 to March 1, 2014," according to the ruling.
Gleason said the parties' further briefing should take this new permit into account.