Feds list Cook Inlet belugas as endangered species

October 18, 2008 

After years of studies by federal scientists and lawsuits by conservation groups, Cook Inlet's fragile population of beluga whales was officially listed as an endangered species Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We have determined that the Cook Inlet beluga whale is in danger of extinction throughout its range," the agency said in its decision.

Scientists with NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service will have up to a year to decide which parts of the inlet are "critical habitat" for the whales -- areas so important to their survival that they merit special protections.

The decision was hailed by the conservation and environmental groups that pressed for the endangered designation, and by the president of the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council. It was greeted with disappointment and apprehension by government and industry officials who say they are worried the endangered species listing will bring expensive and time-consuming changes to the way they do business in the inlet.

"For people like me, it's a good idea to help protect the belugas and get the population back up," said Peter Merryman, a subsistence hunter and president of the marine mammal council.

"This is a long awaited triumph of science over politics," said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, one of the organizations that petitioned for the listing.

But from Alaska's congressional delegation to the mayors of Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough, the reaction was different. Gov. Sarah Palin called it "premature." Mayor Mark Begich called it "unwarranted." Congressman Don Young said it "ignores science."

"This is a clear indication they want to pander to environmental groups over enacting sound policy," Young said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

NO REBOUND

The listing means any federal agency that funds or authorizes activities in Cook Inlet must now consult with NOAA's Fisheries Service to determine whether such actions will adversely affect the whales. That would include projects like expansions at the Port of Anchorage and Port MacKenzie, sewage and wastewater discharges from utility plants, the proposed Knik Arm bridge, and possibly commercial fishermen who catch salmon and other fish belugas feed on.

There are five beluga populations in Alaska, but Cook Inlet's white whales are genetically distinct from and don't interact with the others, scientists say. A 1979 aerial survey by the University of Alaska estimated that population at about 1,300 animals. Anecdotal histories suggest there may have been thousands of belugas in the Inlet less than a century ago.

By 1994, when NMFS biologists began actually monitoring Cook Inlet belugas, the official estimate fell by half, then dropped again to 347 in 1998.

Overharvest by subsistence hunters who killed dozens of whales a year in the 1990s was blamed for the sharp decline. But the subsistence harvest was curtailed in 1999, and only a handful of whales have been killed by hunters since then -- none in recent years. Scientists expected the population to begin to rebound, but that didn't happen. Instead of rising as NMFS predicted, the population stagnated and fell slightly -- about 1.5 percent a year on average from 1999 to 2008, according to the fisheries service.

The beluga population now hovers around 375.

Because hunters had stopped killing whales and the population was not increasing, scientists started to think other factors might be at play: pollution, industrial activity, coastal development, seismic testing.

"The science was clear -- and it has been for a very long time," said marine mammal scientist Craig Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, in a joint statement released Friday by five conservation groups, including Alaska Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife.

IDENTIFYING THREATS

Preliminary findings, contained in NMFS' just-completed "Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale" report, suggest the most important beluga habitat of all lies closest to Anchorage.

A zone in Upper Cook Inlet east of the mouth of Beluga River -- including both Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm -- is important for belugas to forage, calve and escape predators, the report says.

Marine mammal specialist Brad Smith, of the Fisheries Service, said the conservation plan is just a first step. The agency still needs to learn more about the importance of Knik Arm as a mating ground.

"We don't know if there are specific areas where they give birth," Smith said. "We don't know as much as we'd like about over-wintering habitat and prey species."

The conservation plan identifies potential threats to that habitat. Unnatural noise, for example, poses a potential problem for belugas, which depend on their own transmission of sound and the rebound of that sound -- a skill called echolocation -- to locate prey and predators.

That kind of talk gets a quick rise out of Begich. He said he's worried the endangered species listing might cause federal agencies to demand tougher treatment standards for sewage and wastewater the city discharges into the Inlet. And Anchorage's port is a quarter-way into a $700 million expansion. Noise and geographic limitations could affect that work.

"The port services 80 percent of the state," Begich said, as well as serving as the transfer point for Army Stryker vehicles deploying from the state's military bases. Increasing the port's cost of doing business will carry over to the prices consumers see in grocery lines, he said.

The city's sewer utility operates under a federal waiver allowing it to use lower treatment standards for wastewater. Upgrading that "is a pretty big ticket item," Begich said Friday. He and utility officials have previously speculated the cost could be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper said Anchorage is one of about a dozen municipalities the federal government allows to discharge partially treated sewage, under the rationale that Cook Inlet's powerful tides flush it out to sea.

"But you really only get that flushing toilet (effect) in the summer time when the rivers and melting glaciers are pushing water out of the Inlet," he said. "In the winter time, it's not so much a toilet as it is a bathtub."

Begich and other government and industry officials argue that the same set of population estimates that caused federal biologists to consider the belugas endangered actually shows their population has begun to recover.

If you consider the increase in estimates from 278 in 2005 to 375 this year, "that's a 30 percent increase in the population over the last four years," said Doug Vincent-Lang with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The federal scientists, however, look at longer term averages, and say their method shows a population decline over the past 10 years.

INDUSTRY CONCERNS

The Mat-Su has port plans too, including construction of terminals on both sides of Knik Arm for the ferry service it plans to introduce, said borough Mayor Curt Menard. "I feel that if the belugas are listed in the Endangered Species Act it would definitely delay projects and increase the costs of the development of our ferry terminals," he said.

A spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips, which operates two platforms in Cook Inlet and has been drilling there this year, said the company is concerned about the listing and is still evaluating how it may respond. But Jason Brune, executive director of the Resource Development Council, was ready with his.

"We're very disappointed," Brune said, echoing Vincent-Lang's contention that the more recent surveys show an increasing beluga population.

"Whales aren't like rabbits," he said. "They don't grow their population overnight ... It takes five to seven years to reach maturity for a beluga whale," and this is about the point in time where a population rebound could be expected to begin.

The endangered designation and restrictions in important habitat zones could "definitely impact future exploration and development in Cook Inlet," Brune said. "It can stop development without having any positive impact to the protected species."

But Shavelon said that overstates the effect the listing will have.

"I think in terms of responsible development -- it will proceed," he said. "I ... think, if industry and governments are sincere about sustainable development, that we'll see very few impacts."


What happens next

OCT. 22: The decision will be published in the Federal Register, starting a 60-day period before it becomes effective.

WITHIN A YEAR: NMFS has to designate critical habitat areas for the whales. The law defines critical habitat as specific locations within the area inhabited by the belugas that contain biological or physical features essential to them, and that may require special management or restrictions.


Note: Critical habitat restrictions apply only when federal funding, permits or projects are involved. They do not apply to actions of private individuals on private land, unless a federal agency is somehow involved.

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