Lawsuit seeks to unravel mystery over 2018 mass whale stranding near Adak

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An environmental advocacy group is suing the U.S. State Department for more information about a mass whale stranding that happened off the coast of Alaska nearly four years ago.

Eight whales that washed up on the shores of Adak – near the tip of the Aleutian chain – back in the summer of 2018 are at the center of the suit. 

They are whales that relatively little is known about – called Stejneger’s beaked whales. It’s not even clear what their population is. They dive to ocean depths of around two miles deep, and can stay there for hours at a time. 

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility – also known as PEER – is behind the lawsuit. Richard Steiner is on the board. 

“But we also know that unfamiliar sounds to them underwater causes them to spook to the surface way too fast, and cause what the veterinarians call barotrauma or decompression fatalities,” said Steiner.

That’s kind of like the bends experienced by scuba divers. The whales found beached near Adak were too decomposed to determine a cause of death. But the Alaska Volcano Observatory recorded human-caused underwater noise less than a month before they were found. 

Steiner filed Freedom Of Information Acts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Navy, and the U.S. Geological Survey, which indicated that no American military or research ships had been permitted to conduct acoustic operations near Adak in 2018. But at least two Japanese research ships were in the area around that time, as reported by member station KUCB.

Steiner filed another Freedom of Information Act – this time with the State Department – to get more information about what they were doing and if their research operations included underwater sound. That was nearly a year ago, and he hasn’t heard back.

“So, PEER filed a lawsuit against the State Department’s withholding of these documents,” said Steiner.

To clarify – there’s no proof the Japanese vessels were the source of the underwater noise – or that the sounds were the cause of the mass whale stranding near Adak. 

But the State Department is the sole agency that issues permits for foreign vessels to conduct research off the U.S. coast. In an accompanying letter to Sec. of State Anthony Blinken, PEER also outlined a list of suggestions that it said would make the process more transparent – and be more in line for the types of review American ships go through when submitting research proposals – like coordinating with NOAA. Steiner says he’s hopeful it will lead to reforms – and clarify what may have led to the group of Stejneger’s whales washing up on shore in Adak.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that they’re going to see that this is a mess,” said Steiner. “It’s not in the national interest, it needs to be fixed going forward and nobody should be opposed to a clarification and fix of this problem.”

The State Department has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit, and Steiner said PEER expects to hear back by mid May. 

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