Beluga numbers take a dive

Endangered species designation considered to stop mysterious decline

Posted: Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Cook Inlet beluga counts suggest the whale’s numbers may be taking a dive, spurring federal regulators to take a closer look at a petition to list the animal as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service found that an endangered listing may be warranted, a determination that followed on the heels of an all-time low count of Cook Inlet belugas.

The initial results of a visual aerial population survey conducted in June counted just 153 belugas in the inlet. Although the June survey report refers to the count as a rough, quick index of relative abundance that must be adjusted for corrections, it is the lowest index count NMFS has recorded since 1993. Since 1993, the index count has hit a high of 324 in 1995 and a low of 184 in 2000.

“(The 153 count is) just the latest in a trend over the last five or six year in basically nonrecovering numbers,” said Randy Virgin, director of the Alaska Center for the Environment.

The petition to list the Cook Inlet beluga as endangered, submitted last spring, is not the first such petition. But Virgin said he believes the scientific support for listing the Cook Inlet beluga as endangered is stronger than ever before.

Two petitions to list the Cook Inlet beluga were also submitted in 1999.

But federal regulators expected new harvesting restrictions to allow the whales to rebound, and listed them as depleted rather than endangered.

Congress imposed a moratorium on Cook Inlet beluga whale harvests in 1999, dramatically reducing harvests.

From 1996 to 1998 a total of 235 whales were taken by subsistence harvesters, a harvest that has since been restricted to anywhere from zero to two belugas a year.

But the harvest reduction did not result in the recovery that federal regulators had expected and other possible causes that could be leading to the whale’s decline and failed recovery remain murky.

“No one has a smoking gun. There’s just not enough data to support any particular claim,” Virgin said.

More research determining the impact of human activities on the Cook Inlet beluga populations is sorely needed, said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper.

“We’ve had so much industrial activity in Cook Inlet for the past 40 years and there’s been virtually no solid research looking at what the effects are,” he said.

Virgin listed a number of possible factors that could be contributing to the whale’s decline in Cook Inlet, including increased siltiness, pollution and greater activity near the mouths of rivers where belugas congregate in the summer.

“There’s a whole lot of gas and pipelines out there and I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume there are leaks going on,” Virgin said.

Virgin said he expected the strongest opposition to an endangered listing to come from industries operating in the inlet.

“They’re really fearful that a listing decision would just shut down every commercial activity in the inlet,” Virgin said. “But that’s not the case.”

Instead, the listing would likely require that activities within the beluga’s critical habitat be planned to mitigate any affects they may have on the whale and its habitat, Shavelson said.

Such requirements might include timing projects so that they would have the least amount of impact and ensuring that no belugas are present when the activity occurs, said Virgin.

“Any activity that would go on in that critical habitat would have to prove that it can happen without impeding whale recovery,” Virgin said. “So that’s not a inletwide shutdown of everything.”

Although endangered species listings are often proceeded by “the skies are falling” rhetoric, over 99 percent of the projects that occur in critical habitat for endangered species get permitted, Shavelson said.

A decline in beluga populations benefits no one and could be better understood and mitigated if industry, government and environmentalists work together to support more beluga research, he said.

“But to date that hasn’t happened,” he said.

Although historical data is scarce, the NMFA estimates that there may have been as many as 1,000 to 1,300 belugas in the inlet in the mid-1960s.

Regulations require the NMFA to come to a decision regarding the a possible endangered species listing within the next three months.

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