Agency seeks OK to fire rockets near sea lions

Posted: Monday, December 27, 2010

ANCHORAGE - The state's aerospace agency is seeking to renew its permit to fire rockets near havens for sea lions and seals for another five years.

The protected marine mammals gather on the uninhabited island of Ugak, about four miles downrange from the launch pad area at the Alaska Aerospace Corp.'s Kodiak Island Launch Complex.

The site has been used lately by the military to launch targets for missile defense tests.

The main concern is the roar of the rockets as they pass over Ugak Island and the effect the sound can have in frightening endangered Stellar sea lions and the more abundant harbor seals. Whales are thought to be safe, since most of the noise doesn't penetrate the sea surface, the Commerce Department said.

The application didn't deal with the possibility of a rocket exploding after launch.

The Anchorage Daily News reports the U.S. Commerce Department announced last week it was seeking public comments on the permit. The department said the loudest rockets could cause temporary hearing loss for the animals but would not likely cause any permanent damage.

In its application for the permit, the state said it could launch as many as 45 rockets over the next five years. It has conducted only five launches since September 2006, the Commerce Department agencies said in the Federal Register.

The loudest of the rockets, a Castor 120, can produce more than 100 decibels of sound at Ugak, roughly the noise at a disco. But at its loudest, it could send seals scrambling back to sea, perhaps trampling their young or permanently separating mothers and nursing pups.

Sea lions might also flee to the ocean, but they don't use the island to raise the young.

The state agency has agreed to use two sound monitors on Ugak and a reliable video system.

If, after five launches, it became clear that seals were being disturbed, the state agreed it would attempt to modify its launches, such as attempting to avoid the pupping season.

With Stellar sea lion populations in overall decline throughout the region, few have been showing up at Ugak during the post-breeding season, from June to September, the agencies said.

Where there were once hundreds observed at Ugak, pre-launch air patrols during sea lion season have counted fewer than a dozen sea lions on the island.

Harbor seals, on the other hand, have been increasing. Over the course of aerial observations on Ugak starting in the 1990s, they've gone from several hundred to about 1,500 animals, the agencies reported.

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