Foreign Research Vessels Free to Wreak Eco-Havoc
No Notice, Permits, or Monitoring; Mass Beaching of Rare Whales Probed
Washington, DC —The U.S. State Department approves foreign vessels to conduct scientific research in U.S. waters without public notice or ensuring they obtain the same permits domestic researchers must or monitoring their activities. Pointing to the largest recorded beaching of rare Bering Sea beaked whales while Japanese whaling “researchers” operated nearby, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is calling for systemwide reform.
The State Department’s Marine Science Research (MSR) program operates within a black box:
- State does not offer the public an opportunity to review foreign marine research applications, nor does it release the consent letters it issues to foreign researchers, but instead requires Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that languish for months;
- State conducts no environmental review of proposed work, but instead appears to base approvals on political considerations, such as last month’s revocation of consent for Russian salmon research in U.S. waters due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and
- State does not monitor foreign marine research activities it approves in U.S. waters to ensure compliance with U.S. law, nor does it publish reports from such research activities for the public.
“Foreign researchers should abide by the same marine resource safeguards and disclosure requirements as domestic research vessels,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, who sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken outlining suggested reforms. “The State Department should not treat foreign marine research approvals like state secrets.”
These issues came to light after Rick Steiner, a marine conservation expert formerly with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and a PEER Board Member, tried to track down the cause for the 2018 mass beaching of Stejneger’s beaked whales (sometimes called Bering Sea Beaked Whales or saber-toothed whales) on the shore of Adak, Alaska, in the Aleutians. The Alaska Volcano Observatory recorded pulsed, manmade sounds in the water just before the stranding, leading to the suspicion that these acoustic sources caused the stranding deaths, as they are known to drive deep-diving whales to the surface, causing fatal decompression effects.
In March 2021, Steiner submitted FOIA requests to NOAA, the Navy, and the U.S. Geological Survey. All were answered in a timely fashion and indicated that there were no domestic vessels, military or research, permitted to conduct active acoustic activity in the area in 2018.
However, Steiner then learned that there had been three Japanese research ships in the Bering Sea in the summer of 2018, including the Yushin Maru #2, a notorious whaling outlaw, that had been approved to conduct cetacean “research” using acoustic sonobuoys in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands for the International Whaling Commission. Such research activities are required to obtain Incidental Take/Harassment Authorizations, but NOAA confirms that no authorizations were issued for such work in Alaska that year. To date, the source of the recorded (illegal) underwater sounds waters that may have caused the mass stranding remains undetermined.
Foreign marine scientific research approvals are the exclusive province of the State Department, which is slow-walking Steiner’s FOIA request he made last May. Today, PEER sued the State Department seeking immediate production of all the foreign consent letters and approved research specifications for calendar year 2018.
“Had the State Department known of its rap sheet, it should not have permitted the Yushin Maru #2 to enter U.S. waters,” said Steiner. “With the current arcane, uncoordinated, and wholly nontransparent system for approving foreign research vessels, we have no idea how many other marine atrocities remain to be uncovered. This process needs to be fixed.”