Protecting Life in the Arctic

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Evaluation of BOEM Alaska Annual Studies Plan

A Science analysis

The fourth in our series of science briefs and analyses, this report was prepared for The Pew Charitable Trusts U.S. Arctic Program by Robert Spies, Ph.D., and released in January of 2013.

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INTRODUCTION

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) fiscal year 2012 Alaska Annual Studies plan is evaluated and a number of overarching issues are discussed, including monitoring, integration of science, documenting cumulative effects and building development scenarios. In addition, selected specific topics are evaluated, including walrus, bowhead whales and noise, subsistence, Arctic cod and small fishes, and birds.

The major findings and recommendation are summarized as follows:

  1. Monitoring the marine environment. There is still no comprehensive, long-term, integrated monitoring program for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. BOEM needs to support efforts, such as the Distributed Biological Observatory, in order to track changes in the Arctic Ocean as industrialization and climate change impact these ecosystems. There is no plan yet in place to track ecological changes over decades, the scale at which significant changes are most likely to become apparent. The funding cycles for research, usually up to five years for individual projects, are at odds with the decadal scales on which marine ecosystems change.
  2. Integration of science. There are many organizations and agencies sponsoring scientific research in the Arctic Ocean. BOEM and other sponsors would greatly benefit from more integration of these research and monitoring efforts. Some efforts at integration are under way, such as participation in joint planning, which might lead eventually to integration in other areas, such as logistics, obtaining geographic completeness, data sharing, and synthesis. The BOEM study plans for the Arctic should be presented and rationalized with respect to other major efforts in the Arctic marine environment.
  3. Documenting cumulative effects. Despite more than 30 years of oil and gas activity, as well as military activity, in the Arctic, there is no clear picture—or even attempted analysis—of the cumulative effects of these activities in the U.S. Arctic Ocean and coastal zone. The instigation of a comprehensive long-term monitoring program informed by development scenarios, as indicated below, would help make this possible.
  4. Building potential development scenarios. To design appropriate monitoring strategies and document cumulative effects, BOEM should create likely scenarios for developing infrastructure, extractive processes, and associated transport and staging of equipment and personnel and other operations.
  5. Using science in decision-making. If decision-making processes on offshore oil and gas development are to be designed to minimize harm, then it must be clear how the results of scientific studies are being incorporated into such decisions. For example, science should more clearly inform decisions about where drilling should and should not take place.
  6. Walrus. A renewed effort needs to be made to count the entire Pacific walrus population. More needs to be done to understand the sources and thresholds of disturbance from anthropogenic activities. Maximum use should be made of animals harvested for subsistence purposes to collect tissues for key physiological measurements of wild animals.
  7. Effects of noise on bowhead whales. Further efforts should be directed toward establishing inventories and databases of anthropogenic noise and to integrate data on noise sources and whale movements.
  8. Arctic cod and other forage species. While BOEM is initiating much new work on Arctic cod and similar forage species, and this is to BOEM’s credit, we do not yet understand the basic life histories of these species (e.g., their reproductive biology and critical habitat for various life history stages).
  9. Arctic seabirds. Planned BOEM studies do a reasonably good job of addressing research needs for Arctic seabirds. However, it would be beneficial if some of the existing seabird colony data from the coast of the Chukchi Sea were published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
  10. Subsistence. A synthesis is needed of what has been learned from more than 30 years of subsistence studies in the U.S. Arctic. There also needs to be a more systematic approach to incorporating traditional knowledge into BOEM-sponsored projects.
  11. Use of traditional knowledge. An evaluation of how traditional knowledge has been used in the decision-making process is needed to see where improvements might be made and decisions potentially improved.

CONCLUSION

Much environmental research is being carried out within the U.S. portion of the Arctic Ocean, but the effort could be much more efficient and fruitful with better planning, coordination, and synthesis of existing and newly obtained information. To conclude, the findings of this report on the current BOEM Science Plan are summarized as follows:

  1. The BOEM has clearly supported much valuable research on Arctic marine ecosystems, but is only one of many institutions carrying out research on these changing ecosystems. The Arctic research effort cries out for a dedicated, spatially comprehensive, long-term monitoring program to characterize alterations occurring now due to a changing climate and other local anthropogenic effects.
  2. While there is a great deal of research activity in the Arctic, the overall effort would benefit from a greater level of coordination and integration. This would entail initially completing a comprehensive inventory of ongoing and finished studies, bringing all of the relevant data into a common computing environment, and constructing a conceptual model of Arctic marine ecosystems and how they are affected by climate and anthropogenic disturbance, to guide allocation of research effort. While BOEM is making a greater effort to cooperate with other agencies, and this is commendable, there is much left to be done. Completion of the BOEM-sponsored SOAR synthesis is an important concrete step and will make possible greater integration of the Arctic research effort.
  3. The lack of a comprehensive, long-term monitoring program, as noted above, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to document the cumulative effects of industrialization on Alaska’s Arctic, specifically in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Bering Strait. There is little or nothing in the BOEM plan to address directly the cumulative effects of development, which does not bode well for adaptive management of further impacts on Alaska’s Arctic or of potential impacts of contemplated energy development on the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
  4. Related to the need to monitor cumulative impacts of industrial development through institution of a long-term monitoring program, there needs to be a major effort to construct potential development scenarios that would specify the full range of production- and transportation-related activity. Such scenarios would help in a variety of ways, including plans for accurately monitoring resultant impacts, which thereby would allow adaptive management to mitigate or reverse adverse impacts.
  5. Statutes such as OCSLA, OPA, and NEPA require federal agencies to collect or use scientific and other information to inform their planning and management decisions. Although these laws impose diverse requirements—some broad and some specific—they make clear that agencies like BOEM cannot simply collect information for information’s sake. Instead, federal agencies and policymakers must incorporate information into their decision-making processes to improve planning and management outcomes. It is vital that the process of incorporating study findings into the decision-making process be made as transparent as possible.

The following comments refer to selected resources and topics in the BOEM science plan.

  1. Walrus. While the challenges of studying walrus in the Chukchi Sea are recognized, still not enough is currently known to be fully protective of these mammals in the face of further exploration and development. In particular, the size and trajectory of the Pacific walrus population is not known. Nor do we have a clear idea of the impacts of development, especially noise, on walrus behavior and other aspects of their biology.
  2. The effects of noise on bowhead whales is a long-standing concern. BOEM is addressing many of these questions in one way or another, but the agency needs to establish inventories and databases and perform syntheses of information on sound sources and ambient sound levels.
  3. In general, the ongoing and proposed studies on Arctic cod and other small fishes go a long way toward addressing the identified information needs on Arctic fishes. However, more attention to the distribution of early life history stages and supporting habitats is needed, as are studies and models of growth and mortality.
  4. Investigating the status of seabird colonies on the U.S. coast of the Chukchi Sea is a high priority, as is publication of this and other agency-held data in the peer-reviewed literature.
  5. Research on subsistence practices has yielded much valuable information, but a great deal of that work is now decades old. Of particular importance is the adaptation of subsistence practices in the face of change, both environmental and societal, building on the baseline of data acquired since the 1980s on the North Slope.
  6. Incorporation of traditional knowledge in research and decision-making in northern Alaska is important, but action to date has largely been limited to a few studies documenting traditional knowledge about selected species or phenomena. An assessment of the degree to which traditional knowledge has been used in decision-making would help identify ways to improve the involvement of such knowledge and those who hold it.

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