Beluga status could change

Cook Inlet population may be switched to endangered list

Posted: Friday, August 19, 2005

Cook Inlet’s population of beluga whales is half what it was less than a decade ago, leading some experts to argue the whales should fall under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The whales currently are listed as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS, is reviewing the status of the creatures to determine if they should come under the stiffer regulatory control of the Endangered Species Act, which would require, among other things, that specific critical habitat be designated.

A draft beluga whale conservation plan required under the Marine Mammals Act has recently completed a public comment period.

An independent federal agency known as the Marine Mammal Commission issued a review of the conservation plan in late June that, among other things, recommended that it be “substantially reorganized and rewritten” to create a document that clearly describes threats to the whale population and identifies specific actions to address species recovery.

The commission also recommended that NMFS “proceed in an expeditious manner to reconsider listing the Cook Inlet belugas under provisions of the Endangered Species Act.”

A group of 17 Alaska and Outside environmental organizations, including Cook Inlet Keeper, the Alaska Center for the Environment and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, submitted comments on the draft conservation plan, calling it a good overview of the whales’ “precarious status” and noting that it served “as a useful historical backdrop to assess future research and management directions.”

However, the group said, the draft placed undue emphasis on the impact of subsistence hunting, a practice that for all intents and purposes has been virtually halted since the late 1990s, and that the plan “fails to address non-hunting impacts” such as pollution, noise, oil and gas development, aviation, sewage, military activities and coastal development on whales and their habitat.

The plan also does not identify funding sources needed to implement its proposed program of population recovery, the group said.

“Time is of the essence with this isolated stock of whales,” the environmental organizations said, urging NMFS to issue a final conservation plan that would launch research and management strategies needed to ensure the beluga whale remained part of the biological fabric of Cook Inlet for years to come.

“NMFS can barely muster up enough money to do fly-over surveys,” said Bob Shavelson, head of Cook Inlet Keeper, adding that no detailed studies of the impact on whales or their habitat from oil and gas drilling, industrial noise, seismic explosions or toxic waste have ever been done.

“There’s been a decline in population of over 50 percent in the past seven years, but industry will say it’s the effect of unregulated subsistence hunting. But that ceased around 1999,” Shavelson said. “Agency scientists predicted the population would rebound, but we’ve not seen that.”

The estimated whale population currently is between 250 and 350 whales, so few that the creatures are no longer seen regularly in the lower Cook Inlet or Kachemak Bay area.

“We see whales congregate in Knik and Turnagain arms,” Shavelson said.

But those areas are under increasing developmental pressures. The Port of Anchorage is considering an expansion plan that could include filling in some 135 acres of tidelands and the dredging of over 800 acres. Other projects include the expansion at Point McKenzie and a proposed bridge spanning the Knik Arm, a project that environmentalists argue would bisect the most important beluga whale habitat in Cook Inlet.

Brad Smith, a biologist with NMFS’ Protected Resource Division, said the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act tend to overlap. For instance, any mammal listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act is automatically listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But the two laws differ when it comes to their relative legal force, Smith said.

“If the Cook Inlet belugas were listed under the Endangered Species Act, it would obligate NMFS to designate critical habitat for the species,” Smith said. “We are not obligated to do that under the depleted status.”

A critical habitat is defined under the Endangered Species Act as an area in which physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species occur and which might require special management considerations or protection, Smith said. For the beluga, that could mean such things as proximity to fish runs, water depth, turbidity and the like. A permitted activity that exceeded those limits or which altered the habitat would not result immediately in a cessation order, but would trigger increased involvement and consultation between federal agencies.

The designation does not establish preserves or refuges and only applies where federal funding, permits, or projects are involved. It does not apply to citizens engaged in activities on private land that do not involve a federal agency, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

NMFS had already initiated the move toward a status review for the beluga whales when it issued its draft conservation plan, Smith said.

“Assuming we stay the course, we’ll be gathering the science to re-evaluate whether the species condition justifies an Endangered Species Act status,” he said.

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