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2014 Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals

November 15, 2015

This report describes field activities of the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project conducted during summer and fall (1 July – 29 October) 2014 and data analyses used to summarize field activities. Surveys were based in Barrow, Alaska, and Deadhorse, Alaska, and targeted the northeastern and southcentral Chukchi and western Beaufort seas, between 67°N and 72°N latitude and 140°W and 169°W longitude.

Sea ice cover in the study area in 2014 was generally light compared with historical (pre-2007) sea ice cover. Sea ice remained in the northern half of the Chukchi Sea study area in early July. By late July, sea ice in the Chukchi Sea had receded to the northernmost regions of the study area. The majority of the nearshore area in the western Alaskan Beaufort Sea had ~1% sea ice in late July, although ~10-100% sea ice cover remained offshore between Camden Bay, Alaska, and Point Barrow, Alaska. Remnant sea ice persisted in the northeastern Chukchi Sea study area through late August, but the western Beaufort Sea study area was ice-free by late August. By 9 September, the entire study area was completely ice-free and remained ice-free until new ice started forming in mid-October.

A total of 90 survey flights were conducted. The Barrow-based aerial survey team conducted surveys from 2 July through 29 October 2014 and the Deadhorse-based aerial survey team conducted surveys from 19 July through 10 October 2014. Total combined flight time was 440 hours, including 207 hours of transect survey effort. Over 110,000 km were flown, with 45,224 km of effort on transect. Surveys were conducted in the western Beaufort Sea in summer (mid-July through August) for the third consecutive year and in block 23 (southcentral Chukchi Sea) for the first time in several decades.

In 1953, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) (43 USC 1331-1356) charged the U.S. Secretary of the Interior with the responsibility of administering minerals exploration within and development of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). The Act empowered the Secretary to formulate regulations so that its provisions could be met. The OCSLA Amendments of 1978 (43 USC 1802) established a policy for the management of oil and natural gas in the OCS and for protection of the marine and coastal environments. The amended OCSLA states that the Secretary of the Interior shall conduct studies in areas or regions of sales to ascertain the “environmental impacts on the marine and coastal environments of the Outer Continental Shelf and the coastal areas which may be affected by oil and gas development” (43 USC 1346).

Subsequent to the passage of the OCSLA, the Secretary of the Interior designated the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Department of the Interior (USDOI), as the administrative agency responsible for leasing submerged federal lands, and the Conservation Division of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for classifying and evaluating submerged federal lands and regulating exploration and production. In 1982, the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) assumed these responsibilities. The MMS was renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in 2010. In 2011, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) assumed responsibilities for administering environmentally and economically responsible development of offshore resources.

The history of the management recommendations and decisions relevant to natural resource exploration, development, and production in the OCS and associated effects on marine mammals is summarized here. In June 1978, the BLM entered into a consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1972 (16 USC 1531-1543). The purpose of the consultation was to determine the likely effects of the proposed Beaufort Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale on endangered bowhead (Balaena mysticetus) and gray (Eschrichtius robustus) whales. NMFS determined that insufficient information existed to conclude whether the proposed Beaufort Sea sale was likely to jeopardize the continued existence of bowhead and gray whales. In August 1978, NMFS recommended studies to the BLM that would fill the information needs identified during the Section 7 consultation. Subsequent Biological Opinions for leasing and exploration in the Beaufort Sea (Sales 71, 87, and 97) and the 1988 Arctic Region Biological Opinion (ARBO) used for Beaufort and Chukchi sea sales (Sales 124, 126, 144, and 170) recommended continuing studies of whale distribution and OCS-industry effects on bowhead whales (USDOC, NOAA, NMFS 1982, 1983, 1987, and 1988), in addition to monitoring bowhead whale presence during periods when geophysical exploration and drilling were occurring. The 2006 and 2008 ARBO issued by NMFS for leasing and exploration in the U.S. Beaufort and Chukchi seas, Alaska, and authorizations of small takes under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) (USDOC, NOAA, NMFS 2008) recommended the following conservation actions.

Additional Resources

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on 03/12/2019

Research in Alaska Whales Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals