|From Jim Martin, RFA
State Lands Commission Finds MLPA Habitat Data Acquired Illegally
Thursday December 17th: San Diego. The California State Lands Commission (SLC) voted not to revoke the permit for Fugro Pelagos research vessel activity, on the condition that the company abide by the terms of the permit in the future.
Commission staff found that Fugro Pelagos violated the terms of its permit when it struck and killed a blue whale in October, 2009 off Fort Bragg when its contract vessel was mapping the sea floor for the MLPA Initiative.
Staff found that the company:
-Did not notify the State Lands Commission prior to its survey activity
-Did not have marine wildlife observers on board.
Commission staff cited California Coastal Conservancy Executive Director Sam Schuchat's belief that the killing of the whale was "an accident and even if the observers were on board, the whale would have been killed." No supporting evidence was provided.
Staff recommeded the permit be revoked until Jan. 17th 2010 and then returned if the company paid for SLC costs investigating the incident & preparing report: 70 staff hours = $13,000.
David Millar, President of Fugro Pelagos, testified.
He told the Commission that the company did not violate its permit. He stated the company felt "bad about the large mammal being killed."
Millar said his company did not ignore the conditions of its permit - they argued they do not believe their operations where subject to the permit.
The Commission offered a deal to the company that it could keep its permit if it followed the staff's recommendations - payment of costs to the SLC to investigate the incident, and to have observers on board when operating and to notify SLC before conducting operations.
Mr. Millar objected to the conditions only applying to his company, putting him in a competitive disadvantage. He asked that other companies (8 approx.) be required to follow the same terms. The Commissioners said they would look into that issue, but meanwhile, did Miller agree to the terms or did he want his permit revoked? Miller agreed to the terms.
Steve Sullivan, owner of a company that does similar work on hydrographic surveys, called on Fugro Pelagos to return $16 million in public funding for the joint NOAA/California Coastal Conservancy project to map northern California's sea floor in state waters. Sullivan stated that the habitat data collected for the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative was obtained illegally, according to the findings of the State Lands Commission. Sullivan called into question the data being used in the MLPA process. In an interview with KZYX-FM (Philo, CA) Sullivan said a similar situation arose in the Air Quality Resources Board when a contractor misrepresented his credentials, calling into question the integrity of the data. The project in that case had to be thrown out and redone.
"The MLPA process will affect the lives of fishermen and many other people in California. Taking away people's public access based on illegally obtained survey data just isn't right," Sullivan told KZYX radio News Director Paul Hansen in an interview on December 18th.
On October 18th, 2009, a vessel under contract for mapping sea floor habitat data for the MLPA process in California struck and killed a rare female blue whale off the coast south of Fort Bragg, in Mendocino County. The vessel, "Pacific Star," ceased operations after the whale strike.
Local fishermen are already pointing out data gaps in the MLPA science process as they struggle to meet a February 1, 2010 deadline for initial proposals for marine protected areas on the north coast. Fishermen are wondering: if Fugro Pelagos was cutting corners by illegally failing to pay for marine wildlife observers, what other corners did they cut in obtaining the habitat data? The viability of sustainable fisheries on the north coast depend on the accuracy and integrity of this data.
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