Whale researchers express deep concern over Hilcorp’s seismic survey

Sep 30, 2019

Olga von Ziegesar takes a picture of a humpback whale in Kachemak Bay.
Credit Renee Gross, KBBI News

Two whale researchers are raising concern over Hilcorp’s activities in lower Cook Inlet. The company is using air guns to explore the area for oil and gas. But the researchers say it will cause irreversible damage to whales and other marine wildlife.

Biologist Olga von Ziegesar played a recording of seismic air gun blasts coming from Hilcorp. She recorded the underwater noise a few miles away from the company’s vessel.

Von Ziegesar was sitting on a boat in Homer, about to go out to identify and count humpback whales. She’s been studying whales in the area for the past forty years with a nonprofit she co-directs called Winged Whale Research. It’s a small research and education organization.

Von Ziegesar said that a few years ago, there was just a handful of whales in the area during this time of year. Now, there is roughly 20.  She said Hilcorp’s process of shooting sound underwater makes her worried for the mammals.

“That sound is so loud," she said. “It is like a bombing and animals move away from it, and it harms all the marine creatures and there's a lot of science proving that.”

That’s why she and her research partner have been monitoring Hilcorp activities. The company’s permit allows humpback whales roughly 1500 feet from the vessel. She said that’s not nearly enough space.

“So this sound really carries, and I've heard it can even carry a hundred miles,” she said. “Very loud.”

She said researchers have linked increases of underwater noise to deafness, tissue damage and mass strandings among whales. One way to get Hilcorp to stop would be if the researchers could catch the company violating its permit. For instance, if the company continued to shoot air guns while a whale swam within roughly 1500 feet of the ship. But von Ziegesar said that’s unlikely to happen.

“I doubt we're going to catch them in the wrong,” she said. “I don't know that any marine mammal will go close enough to shut them down.”

But even if Hilcorp is following all the rules in the permit, in von Ziegesar’s book, what the company is doing is still wrong. Showing the world that it’s wrong though is easier said than done. Von Ziegesar thought that, for sure, the sounds would force the whales away from Kachemak Bay. It would be a clear sign that the sounds were adversely affecting the whales. But that didn’t happen.

“They may be being chased in here,” she said. “It's hard to say, and it's hard to prove these things.”

The researchers are writing letters to agencies overseeing the Hilcorp permit asking them to stop the company from moving forward with this project.

There’s also some environmental groups suing the Trump administration for granting Hilcorp this permit. But that’s unrelated.

It’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s job to enforce the conditions of the permit. But because NOAA is part of the lawsuit, it could not provide a comment for this story. However, the agency said potential violations of regulations should be reported to their law enforcement offices. 

Hilcorp filed a motion to intervene on the lawsuit and did not respond to a request for comment on von Ziegesar’s concerns. But during a Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Meeting in August, project manager Mike Dunn said these surveys are nothing new. 

“Now one thing I should mention is there have been, I think,  four seismic programs shot over this area over the last 40 years,” he said.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management can’t confirm this statistic. The agency’s available records only go back to 1998. But the organization did say there was a seismic survey in 2005.

Shelley Gill drives around Kachemak Bay looking for whales.
Credit Renee Gross, KBBI News

Beth Sharp is a wildlife biologist with Hilcorp. She also spoke at the meeting and said the company is putting independent observers on a helicopter and on boats to spot marine mammals.

"We have people on watch on all of the vessels at all times during operations, monitoring the entire areas of sonification,” she said. “And we have certain triggers for when we shut down operations if something comes into those areas.”

Back at the boat, researcher Shelley Gill drives over to a group of humpback whales.

“We’re surrounded," she said. 

She questions Hilcorp’s ability to abide by their permit restrictions.

“Their observers can't see in the middle of the night,” she said.

But it’s not something that Gill and her research partner can make up for.

“When I say David and Goliath, you’re looking at this boat, we got a 60-horse-four-stroke engine, on a 28-foot-sailboat with a foam core,” she said.

Still, she said she isn’t deterred.

“So are we supposed to politely go, ‘oh, well, they got their permit, so, it must be okay,’” she said. “No. That's not what we're going to do because all over the world, things are legal that are wrong.”

Hilcorp’s permit allows them roughly forty more days to finish their seismic surveying. But the company will likely finish before then.     

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