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Judge: Agency erred in Beluga whale harassments estimates

Posted: May 30, 2013 - 11:10pm

JUNEAU — The National Marine Fisheries Service made mathematical errors in estimating how many endangered beluga whales in Cook Inlet could be harmed or harassed by seismic testing, a federal judge has ruled.

This week’s decision by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason was a partial victory for conservation groups and the Alaska Native village of Chickaloon. They sued last year, claiming that seismic testing related to oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska would harm the belugas and that the fisheries service improperly issued exploration permits to Apache Alaska Corp. for high-intensity seismic work.

Gleason sided with the fisheries service on other points, finding that the agency took the requisite “hard look” at the cumulative impacts of Apache’s surveying activities and that those activities did not require a more extensive environmental review process.

It’s not clear what the next step in the case might be. Both sides were reviewing the decision Thursday.

Gleason asked for additional briefing from the parties, noting her order, dated Tuesday, did not resolve how the mathematical errors might impact other aspects of the agency’s decision making.

There may have been as many as 1,300 Cook Inlet belugas at one point, but the number fell sharply during the 1990s, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Even with a hunting ban, the belugas haven’t recovered.

In 2008, the federal government declared the Cook Inlet belugas as endangered. The 2011 population was estimated at 284.

Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said Gleason’s decision made clear that it’s not OK for the fisheries service to get its estimates wrong. The population is in trouble, and underestimating the number that could be affected by activities is a big problem, she said.

Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the fisheries services, said in a statement that the computation error was contained in the first incident harassment authorization that the agency issued to Apache. After it was brought to the agency’s attention, she said the error was corrected in the second authorization issued to the company.

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