President Obama’s upcoming visit to Alaska puts a spotlight on urgent energy and climate change issues, especially offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean. To highlight impacts of drilling on wildlife, Audubon and partners developed the most comprehensive, science-driven set of wildlife maps available for the Arctic Ocean. A fact sheet and simplified, high-definition maps showing Shell’s current drill site in the Chukchi Sea and how it relates to critical bird, walrus and endangered bowhead whale habitat are available for publication, as are Audubon Alaska’s more detailed maps and comments on offshore oil and gas leasing. 

Audubon Positions on Drilling in the Arctic Ocean:

“We can’t clean up an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. An oil spill at the wrong time and place could have devastating impacts on wildlife and the people that rely on that wildlife,” said Jim Adams, Audubon Alaska Policy Director. “Shell’s string of mishaps in 2012 and the current attempt to drill would be comical if the consequences weren’t deadly serious. Shell has proven it can’t be trusted with America’s Arctic Ocean and the wildlife there.”

“Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is not only risky, it’s pointless,” warns David Yarnold, the president and CEO of National Audubon Society. “We need to focus on other sources of energy that don’t put people, birds, other wildlife and the environment in unnecessary danger where spills under ice sheets can’t be controlled and the ability to respond to emergencies is pitifully inadequate.

“President Obama cannot pander to Big Oil on one hand and claim to want to curb the impact of climate change on the other. We need to be looking forward, not back. Drilling in the Arctic Ocean is a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

Quick Facts: Oil Drilling Is a Sea of Trouble for the Arctic Ocean

What’s at Stake?
The Chukchi Sea is a rich but fragile place. Tens to hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and birds migrate here every year, drawn by the abundant food. An oil spill at the wrong time and place could have devastating impacts on wildlife populations and harm communities that rely on wildlife subsistence and traditional uses along the Arctic Ocean coast. 

Birds at Risk
Hundreds of thousands of birds rely on the Chukchi Sea for abundant food and intact breeding and migration staging habitat. The Chukchi Sea corridor from Point Hope to Point Barrow alone supports 245,000 breeding seabirds. Some of the birds at risk include:

  • Spectacled Eider: Listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. As many as 33,000 of these sea ducks may gather in the Ledyard Bay Important Bird Area in late summer and fall during molting.
  • King Eider: The entire western population of King Eiders, 300,000–400,000 birds, migrates past Point Barrow on their way to Arctic nesting grounds from wintering areas on the Bering Sea.
  • Pacific Black Brant: These Arctic-nesting geese migrate along the coast. Forty thousand Black Brant, roughly half the world’s population, stage for migration in Alaska’s Kasegaluk Lagoon on the Chukchi Coast.

Wildlife at Risk

  • Walrus: The Chukchi Sea provides extremely important habitat for walrus that is increasingly more important; as sea ice decreases due to climate change, walrus increasingly haul out on land at Point Lay and Icy Cape and then swim out to the ice shelf near Hannah Shoal to feed.
  • Bowhead Whale: Listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Nearly the entire world population of bowhead whales spends the summer in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

What Is the Danger of Oil Drilling?

Oil Spills

  • There is a 75% chance of a major spill if the Chukchi Sea is developed for oil and gas.  (Lease Sale 193 Final Second EIS, p. 156.)
  • There is no way to clean up a large oil spill in the Arctic Ocean.  A 2014 National Academy of Science report found that current personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation, and safety resources for overseeing a spill response in the Arctic are not adequate, and calls this absence of infrastructure a “significant liability” in the event of a large oil spill.
  • An oil spill can cause physical and behavioral harm to wildlife. A spill can drive whales and other marine mammals from preferred habitat. Oil can cause chemical burns and irritation from direct contact and ulcers and internal bleeding if ingested. Oil floating at the surface emits toxic fumes surfacing whales will breathe. The Exxon Valdez oil spill severely impacted the Prince William Sound population of transient killer whales, resulting in the National Marine Fisheries Service designation of “depleted stock” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Disturbance to Wildlife

Shell’s operations will introduce noise disturbance into the Chukchi Sea from drilling, underwater airguns, icebreaking, vessel traffic, and aircraft.

  • Walrus, particularly females and calves that live in the Chukchi in summer and fall, are sensitive to noise. Disturbances from oil operations can cause walruses to abandon preferred feeding areas, separate mothers from calves, and result in increased stress and energy expenditures.
  • Bowhead whales will steer clear of icebreaker vessels by up to 25 km to avoid noise. BOEM states that that drilling activities “could potentially produce sufficient noise and disturbance that bowhead whales will avoid an area of high value to them and suffer consequences of biological significance.”

Important Bird Areas

Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are designated based on crucial places for breeding, migrating, or wintering birds. A globally-significant IBA supports at least 1% of the global population for at least one, if not more, species.  There are 4 globally-important IBAs in the Chukchi Sea and along the coast that could be affected by an oil spill from Shell’s drilling, including:

  • Barrow Canyon IBA spans the boundary between the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. As wildlife moves from one sea to the other, they must round Point Barrow and pass through here. Therefore, the Barrow Canyon area is a migration bottleneck for birds and marine mammals-virtually all of which pass here during both spring and fall migration. During summer months, approximately 625,000 birds use this marine area as a feeding ground.
  • Ledyard Bay to Icy Cape IBA is very important for birds, especially eiders. This is a critical habitat for migrating, staging, and foraging Spectacled Eiders. The area is also a concentrated staging area for King Eiders during spring and fall migration. The entire breeding population of King Eiders in western North America—about half of a million birds—is believed to use this area.

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About Audubon

Audubon Alaska's mission is to conserve the spectacular natural ecosystems of the state, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats, for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations. Audubon Alaska uses science to identify conservation priorities and support conservation actions and policies, with an emphasis on public lands and waters.

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