REUTERS: 1 June 2007
Whales are facing a new threat from expanded oil and gas exploration in icy waters off the coasts of Alaska and Arctic Canada, according to a report issued by an international whaling forum.
The report, released at the International Whaling Commission’s annual meeting held this week in Anchorage, singles out energy exploration as a serious threat to whales that migrate through the Pacific Ocean.
The warning from more than 200 IWC scientists comes at a time when the U.S. federal government is proposing new oil and gas leases in Alaska’s North Aleutian Basin, an area that encompasses the Bristol Bay region, which is home to endangered eastern North Pacific right whales.
Of specific concern is noise associated with exploration, such as seismic surveys planned this summer in the Beaufort Sea and wide-ranging potential impacts from a proposed exploration in Bristol Bay, said the report.
The IWC, the only international forum devoted to whales, has no jurisdiction over U.S. energy-development policy, but Alaska natives and environmentalists at the meeting hope the commission’s scientists will sway the Bush administration.
A five-year outer continental shelf leasing plan, to take effect on July 1, calls for a North Aleutian Basin sale in 2011. The area had been subject to leasing bans since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but that was recently lifted.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates the area holds 753 million barrels of oil and .24 trillion cubic metres of natural gas.
“They might consider sanctuaries based on what we call critical habitat for the whales,” said Edward Itta, mayor of Alaska’s North Slope Borough. “They would be off-limits to industrial development.”
Itta and other Inupiat officials have protested a variety of exploration plans for the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, home to endangered bowhead whales.
The Inupiat, who hunt bowheads, are alarmed by Shell plan this summer for exploration drilling in the Beaufort.