State sues over beluga endangered listing

COSTS: Port director argues protections are hurting entire state.

June 4, 2010 

The state of Alaska sued Friday to overturn the listing of beluga whales in Cook Inlet as an endangered species, saying the federal government overreached in its conclusion that the animals were not recovering.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., argues the white whales do not need extra protections provided by the Endangered Species Act. It also says a listing will hurt Alaska economically, deterring commercial fishing, oil and gas exploration and tourism, and could affect operations at Alaska military installations.

"We presented a strong case during the public review process that there is no need to list this species as endangered because of the stabilization of the beluga population and the protection measures already in place," said Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan.

The listing means federal agencies, before issuing a variety of commercial permits, must first consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine if there are potential harmful effects on belugas, and it has implications for Alaska's largest city.

Cook Inlet is home to the Port of Anchorage, where vessels offload products that reach 80 percent of Alaska's population. Port director Bill Sheffield last month said protections for beluga whales have added to cost overruns and delays in port expansion, now estimated at more than $750 million.

The Cook Inlet beluga population has been estimated to be as high as 1,300 animals in 1979. Abundance surveys conducted from 1994 to 2008 resulted in population estimates ranging from 278 animals to 653 animals. The state and environmental groups disagree on how to interpret the most recent numbers.

Trish Rolfe, director of Trustees for Alaska, an Anchorage-based environmental law firm, said reasons for low beluga numbers are not known -- and that the whales should be listed as endangered until they are.

The 2008 federal aerial count figure was 375 whales and the 2009 was 321, said Karla Dutton of Defenders of Wildlife in Alaska, showing a continued downward trend.

Doug Vincent-Lang, endangered species coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the trend depends on the years reviewed. Five years ago, he said, just 278 whales were counted.

"We're seeing a positive trending line over the last five years," he said.

State officials say the steep population decline stopped in 1999 after a voluntary suspension in subsistence hunting.

The National Marine Fisheries Service considered and rejected a listing in 2000. Trustees for Alaska petitioned again in 2006 and the federal agency declared Cook Inlet belugas endangered in October 2008. Federal officials said belugas were not recovering despite protections already in place.

The lawsuit claims the federal agency disregarded and failed to properly respond to information the state provided regarding stability of the population and substantial conservation efforts.

Belugas, which reach a length of up to 15 feet, feed on salmon, smaller fish, crab, shrimp, squid and clams. In late summer, whales often can be spotted from highways leading away from Anchorage, chasing salmon schooled at stream mouths in preparation for a run to spawning grounds.

Sullivan said the state has been working with groups affected to make sure federal regulators understood how potentially crippling designation of beluga critical habitat could be to the economy.

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