Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
November 2006

Vol. 11, No. 45 Week of November 05, 2006

Bridging the Eskimo, oil culture gap

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission seeks mutual understanding between the oil industry and subsistence hunters

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

The loss of land previously available for subsistence hunting, together with the impact of industrial noise on offshore hunting, form just two of the issues that are causing unease about the oil and gas industry among the communities of Arctic Alaska.

And an increasing volume of offshore exploration activity in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is adding significantly to that unease. North Slope residents worry that industrial activity could disrupt the bowhead whale hunts that the Native communities of the region view as a cornerstone of their cultural identity as well as an essential food source.

The drive for oil and gas

But the North Slope communities also understand the drive to find new oil and gas, Jessica LeFevre, counsel for the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, said at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Arctic Ocean Open Water Seismic Meeting on Oct. 23.

“The folks up north, we get it — the country needs oil and gas. … We all get that,” LeFevre said. The oil companies know how to obtain that oil and gas, but the North Slope communities have to remind industry continuously about the need to consider the long-term impact of industry on the Native culture, LeFevre said.

“This is a millennia-old culture,” LeFevre said. “It is one of the few remaining continuously existing subsistence cultures in the western hemisphere. … The northern Alaska Inupiaq and the Siberian Yupik depend on marine mammals for food and subsistence. … You are engaged in the industrialization of a marine habitat of at least one endangered species and on which an entire civilization of people depends.”

LeFevre explained that the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is a federally recognized not-for-profit organization that was formed to protect bowhead whales and the bowhead whale hunt.

Cumulative impacts

Whaling Commission wildlife biologist Craig George used a series of maps to demonstrate visually the impact of a growing North Slope oil industry on subsistence hunting. Those maps showed the oil industry infrastructure expanding out from Prudhoe Bay over the past 30 years, with the land available for hunting shrinking in response to the industrial development.

And, in the context of that industrial expansion, LeFevre commented that assessing the impact of an individual oil project is a bit like looking at an individual tree in a forest, without looking at the forest as a whole.

“It’s really easy in time to forget that these trees are part of a forest, and the forest is growing,” LeFevre said.

George also showed a map of MMS bowhead whale aerial survey data in the Beaufort Sea — the map depicted a lower density of bowhead whale sightings near Prudhoe Bay, compared with other places along the Beaufort Sea coast. However, he commented that the bowhead whale population has made a steady recovery since the end of commercial whaling almost 100 years ago.

“Things are good and we want to keep it that way,” he said.

Bowhead whales and seismic

A core concern of the Whaling Commission is the impact of seismic noise on bowhead whale migration paths. A marine seismic survey involves a survey vessel firing an array of air guns in the water at frequent intervals while the vessel traverses a seismic line. The sound emitted from the air guns is reflected from underground rock formations and the ensuing echoes are recorded through an array of geophones that the survey vessel tows behind the air guns. The noise from the guns can disturb or agitate marine wildlife.

“One of the things we’ve found in the process (of research) is that migrating bowhead whales have pretty dramatic reactions to active seismic,” LeFevre said.

LeFevre said that a flurry of seismic survey activity in the Beaufort Sea in the early to mid-1980s caused direct and indirect interference with bowhead hunts. As well as deflecting the migration routes of the whales, the noise caused changes to the whales’ swimming patterns, LeFevre said.

“That affects the hunt because the hunter has to be able to predict where the whale is going to be,” LeFevre said.

The early experience of the impact of seismic work led to a research program that has combined western science with the traditional knowledge of the Native peoples, LeFevre said. That research has attempted to answer questions regarding the locations and activities of whales; whale feeding patterns; and how whales react to human activities.

Peer review meetings

And the research has, among other things, resulted in successful annual stakeholder peer review meetings that provide a forum for people involved in the Arctic offshore activities to discuss the research results. Those meetings also provide a forum for resolving issues that relate to incompatibilities between offshore industrial activities and subsistence whale hunting.

“We are dealing with two incompatible activities and our job is to try to figure out how to protect the animals that are here, for future generations,” LeFevre said. “… Our job is to make activities compatible year by year. … We welcome participation from everyone.”

LeFevre particularly emphasized that industry needs to understand the concerns of the North Slope communities, while it is also incumbent on the North Slope communities to understand what industry is doing.

In addition, federal law mandates that industry accommodates the needs of offshore subsistence hunters — the Marine Mammal Protection Act sanctions and protects subsistence hunting, LeFevre said. And the Whaling Commission has an annual cooperative agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requiring NOAA to consult with the Whaling Commission on all actions that impact the bowhead whale, she said.

Nowadays conflict avoidance agreements between companies and the Whaling Commission provide the mechanism for companies carrying out offshore activities to meet legal obligations to protect subsistence hunting.

“Actually it was oil and gas operators that first came up with the (conflict avoidance agreement) idea,” LeFevre said.

The initial idea involved a traffic management scheme, in response to multiple conflicting activities in the Beaufort Sea during the surge in seismic survey activity in the 1980s. Traffic management then evolved through a myriad of negotiations into an annual communications scheme and eventually into the modern conflict avoidance agreement, LeFevre said.

And, given the difficulty of an agency or an industrial operator determining how to meet the statutory requirements for protecting subsistence hunting, the conflict avoidance agreement has proved the most effective way of meeting the required legal standards, LeFevre said.

Moreover, conflict avoidance agreements do seem to work in protecting the subsistence hunting — following the implementation of a conflict avoidance agreement for the 2006 open water season, the subsistence bowhead whale hunt has proved successful.

“I am very pleased with the outcome of this fall’s harvest at Kaktovik, Nuiqsut and Barrow,” said Maggie Ahmaogak, executive director of the Whaling Commission.

More research

LeFevre emphasized the need for further monitoring of animals during industrial activity and research into animal behavior. A better understanding of animal behavior will lead to better techniques for mitigating industrial impacts.

“The more complete and accurate the data, the more surgical and effective mitigation can become,” LeFevre said.

But the effectiveness of animal monitoring and research also depends on trust and effective communications between all of the stakeholders in the offshore arctic environment.

“We trust you to get out there … and tell us the truth about what’s going on,” LeFevre said.

Honesty breeds better communications and that leads to better cooperation and more refined mitigation, she said, adding that she is concerned about practicalities of communications as the number of companies operating in the region increases.

And, during a discussion of research needs for the Arctic offshore, LeFevre said that the inevitable impact of industrial noise on marine wildlife might drive a need for a new paradigm for industrial activities.

“Maybe what we need to come up with is … a new model for oil and gas exploration and production,” LeFevre said.

But LeFevre emphasized that the Whaling Commission seeks cooperation rather then confrontation.

“We are not here to stop your companies getting oil and gas. We are not here telling you that you can’t do your work,” LeFevre said. “We are here to ask you to please work with us, so that other people can do the things that they want.

“… These (ancient) cultures are incredibly resilient … in the face of harsh environmental conditions … but they are incredibly fragile in the face of industry. … This group up north could very easily be looking at their end. … Every year you have to make a decision. Are you going to put a nail in the coffin or are you going to work with us?

“… We are very concerned about what we are going to see in 2007. We are really concerned about what’s happening in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years in this area and to the people that live there.”

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