- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2016

KENAI, Alaska (AP) - A federal commission is calling on the National Marine Fisheries Service to delay permits issued for oil and gas operations in Cook Inlet until a plan is developed to ensure marine animals, particularly beluga whales, are protected.

The Marine Mammal Commission is an independent government agency that enforces the Marine Mammals Protection Act. It says the National Marine Fisheries Service should not allow the permits because it remains unclear what is causing the Cook Inlet beluga whale population to decline, The Peninsula Clarion reported (https://bit.ly/23KXOzV).

“There are a number of human and natural forces that could be contributing to the continued demise of beluga whales, we just aren’t sure what the circumstances are,” said Vicki Cornish, an energy policy analyst and marine biologist with the commission.

ExxonMobil has applied for a permit that would allow the harassment of up to 34 beluga whales, 13 killer whales, 54 harbor porpoises and more than 4,600 harbor seals in the course of its activity in the area.

Marine Mammal Commission Executive Director Rebecca Lent wrote a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to delay issuing any permits until it can determine the energy giant would not harm more than a small number of Cook Inlet belugas. Lent also urged the fisheries service to develop a plan to address the effect of all marine activities on the whales.

The most recent count of Cook Inlet beluga whales was estimated at about 340, a slight increase from the previous count.

Connie Barclay, the director of NOAA’s Communications and External Affairs office, said the agency is working on a draft environmental assessment of the marine activities and will publish the final assessment when it is ready.

“This Environmental Assessment, which analyzes multiple proposed Incidental Harassment Authorizations, is the interim step taken by NOAA Fisheries until a Draft Environmental Impact Statement can be completed,” Barclay wrote in an email.

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Information from: (Kenai, Alaska) Peninsula Clarion, https://www.peninsulaclarion.com


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