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Project Description

The western Arctic physical climate is rapidly changing. The summer minimum sea ice extent in 2007 and 2008 covered an area which was 37% less than that of two decades ago. The speed of these changes was unexpected, as the consensus of the climate research community just a few years ago was that such changes would not be seen for another 30 years. As sea temperature, oceanographic currents, and prey availability are altered by this climate change, changes in baleen whale species composition and distribution are expected (and evidenced already by local knowledge and opportunistic sightings). In addition, the observed northward retreat of the minimum extent of summer sea ice has the potential to create opportunities for the expansion of oil and gas-related exploration and development into previously closed seasons and localities in the Alaskan Arctic. This combination of increasing anthropogenic impacts coupled with the steadily increasing abundance and related seasonal range expansion by the bowhead, gray, humpback, and fin whales, indicates that more complete information on the year-round presence of large whales is needed in the Chukchi Sea planning area. Timing and location of whale migrations may play an important role in assessing where, when, or how exploration or access to petroleum reserves may be conducted to mitigate or minimize the impact on protected species. The study will have four component projects: oceanography, passive acoustics, zooplankton, and climate modeling. Passive acoustic moorings, deployed concurrently with bio-physical moorings, will provide previously unattainable year-round assessment of the seasonal occurrence of bowhead, humpback, right, fin, gray, and other whales in this planning area and their response to environmental changes (including oceanographic conditions, climate, indices of potential prey density, and anthropogenic activities).

Issues & Justification

Current leasing schedules indicate that further leasing for oil and gas development is proposed for the Chukchi Sea Planning Areas. Baleen whale species including bowhead, gray, humpback, fin, right, and minke whales may occur in these areas. Timing and location of whale migrations may play an important role in assessing where, when, or how exploration or access to petroleum reserves may be conducted to mitigate or minimize the impact on strategic stocks (including the endangered bowhead, right, fin, and humpback whales). Given the expected link between the spatio-temporal distribution of these species and changes in environmental variables such as oceanographic currents, sea temperature, sea ice cover, and prey availability, it is necessary to assess the spatio-temporal trends in these variables as well.

The study will have four component projects: oceanography, passive acoustics, zooplankton, and climate modeling. Passive acoustic moorings, deployed concurrently with bio-physical moorings will provide previously unattainable year-round assessment of the seasonal occurrence of bowhead, humpback, right, fin, gray, and other whales in this planning area and their response to environmental changes (including oceanographic conditions, climate, indices of potential prey density, and anthropogenic activities). This research plan therefore addresses all three major research themes of the Science Plan.

Information and annual reports from this study will be used in the preparation of draft and final environmental assessments for Chukchi Sea Lease Sales. The information will be integral to documents related to Endagnered Speciea Act (ESA), Section 7 Consultation. Study information will be used in writing post-lease environmental impact statements (EISís) and environmental assessments (EAís) and in reviewing oil-industry plans for exploration, development, and transportation.


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