Homer residents support beluga endangered listing

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Resource Development Council representative might have felt like a beluga whale facing a pack of orcas Thursday night at a public hearing held by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer.

Deantha Crockett, projects coordinator for the Anchorage-based development advocacy group, was one of a few people testifying against listing the Cook Inlet beluga whale under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Most of the 20 people speaking favored a listing.

"RDC believes an endangered species listing is inappropriate at this time," she said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams also spoke against the proposal, but after the public hearing was closed. Tina Cunning, a representative of Gov. Sarah Palin's office, said conditions have not changed to warrant an endangered-species listing for belugas. She urged NMFS to pursue funding for further research.

About 50 attended the hearing. Last week's hearing in Homer was the first of three meetings in southcentral. A public hearing was held in Anchorage Friday. A hearing also is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna. Written comments must be received by Aug. 3.

In April 2006, Trustees for Alaska petitioned NMFS to list Cook Inlet belugas as an endangered species. Last August NMFS concluded the petition showed sufficient scientific information to possibly warrant a listing. It has 12 months to make a finding on the petition. The hearings were held to get comments and information on the petition.

In a 2006 study based on aerial surveys, NMFS estimated the number of inlet belugas had fallen to 302 from an estimate of 1,293 in 1979.

NMFS predicted the inlet belugas have a 26 percent chance of being extinct within 100 years and a 68 percent probability within 300 years.

The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection act already protects belugas, such as limiting hunting only to Alaska Natives. An endangered species listing would protect the whales further.

"The Endangered Species Act is probably the most stringent animal protection in federal law," said Brad Smith of NMFS.

According to aerial surveys, NMFS said Cook Inlet belugas declined by half between 1998 and 1994, from 653 to 347 whales. Scientists had believed Native hunting could explain the population drop and that severely limiting hunting would allow the beluga population to recover.

"We had thought the problem was one of overharvest," said Craig Matkin, a whale biologist with the North Gulf Oceanic Society who testified at the hearing. In that case, the Marine Mammal Protection Act could protect the whales, he said.

Natives took an average of 77 whales a year between 1995 and 1998. After hunting was restricted in 1999, Natives took five whales. However, scientists now estimate the population has declined 4.1 percent a year.

"The reality is, we were all wrong," Matkin said. "There are other issues that are keeping this species from recovering."

Michael Jasny, senior research analyst for the National Resource Defense Council, Vancouver, B.C., spoke about some of those issues.

One threat Jasny mentioned was bacterial pollution from city sewage treatment plants. Five cities discharge primary-treated sewage into Cook Inlet, he said. Studies done of St. Lawrence River belugas in Canada showed the presence of toxoplasma gondii antibodies in 27 percent of whales studied, Jasny said.

Barbara Mahoney, a marine mammal biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage, said studies of limited numbers of Cook Inlet beluga whale carcasses about six a year since 2002 have not shown bacterial infection. Streptococcus bovis-equines bacterial infections have been seen in sea otter carcasses, an infection that damages heart valves.

Joel Blatchford, president of the Alaska Native Marine Mammal Hunters Committee, also spoke in favor of listing inlet belugas as endangered. He suggested one reason the whale population might be declining is a loss of fish.

"This beluga is the canary of the mine," Blatchford said. "Your fish are going to crash, too."

D.J. Blatchford spoke of the importance of the beluga whale to Native diets.

"That beluga oil is sacred to us," she said. "We're asking for the voice of the beluga to be heard. They're dying."

Several longtime Homer residents or visitors spoke about seeing belugas in Kachemak Bay decades ago.

"When we first came to Homer 32 years ago, beluga whales were abundant off the Spit," David Raskin said.

After Williams came to the meeting during a question-and-answer period, Bob Shavelson, head of Cook InletKeeper, asked the mayor why the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Municipality of Anchorage raised $75,000 to oppose the listing, but weren't raising money to support more research.

Williams said the three boroughs had used some of that money to lobby in Washington, D.C., for more research funding. He challenged some of the NMFS research.

NMFS scientists have said they believe the inlet beluga is what it calls a "distinct population segment." Federal law allows a distinct population segment to be listed as endangered even if the species as a whole is not in danger of extinction.

"We believe the numbers presented are wrong," Williams said. "We think there are some errors in the genetics. ... We do not believe there's proof that the belugas that are missing are totally missing."

Williams also raised concerns about the economic effects of an endangered species listing.

"We have some deep and abiding interests regarding commerce and how it will be affected by the listing," he said. "One has to ask who occupies the earth: people or belugas?"

After reviewing testimony and its research, NMFS can make one of these findings regarding the petition to list the Cook Inlet beluga as an endangered species:

* A listing is not warranted;

* A listing is warranted and regulations will be proposed; or

* A listing is warranted, but regulations can be precluded because of other proposals to list, delist or reclassify the species.

For more information, visit www.fakr.noaa.gov/protectedresources/whales/beluga.htm. Comments can be sent to Kaja Brix, Alaska Region, NMFS, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802; by e-mail to CIB-ESA-Endangered@noaa.gov, with the subject line "Cook Inlet Whale PR"; through a form at www.regulations.gov; by fax to (907) 586-7557; or hand-delivered to Federal Building, 709 W. 9th St. in Juneau.

Michael Armstrong is a reporter for the Homer News. He can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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