Federal fishery managers on Friday designated large stretches of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for endangered beluga whales, leading to an outcry from political and business leaders that the regional economy will be strangled.
"That means no construction, drilling or dredging," House Speaker Mike Chenault said in a statement. "We were hoping to see the benefit of state participation in (oil) drilling this summer. Now? It's out the window."
Not quite, said the federal supervisor in Anchorage who speaks for the National Marine Fisheries Service on the issue, biologist Brad Smith.
"We're the stewards of the whales," Smith said. "What we're trying to do is avoid any activity or actions that are contrary to their ability to recover. That certainly does not mean all activity stops."
The habitat designation is a requirement of the federal Endangered Species Act that was all but ordained once Cook Inlet belugas were declared endangered in 2008. It covers 3,013 square miles of shoreline and marine area, including all of Kachemak Bay, all of upper Cook Inlet north from about Clam Gulch, and the west side shoreline of lower Cook Inlet.
A sliver of shoreline and water, encompassing the Port of Anchorage and Point MacKenzie, was excluded from the designated habitat on national security grounds. Military areas north of the port were excluded because of a pre-existing environmental agreement between the Defense Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Biologists say the Cook Inlet beluga population is a distinctive stock of the small, toothed whale famously known for its white color, though the young are gray, perhaps for protection from predators like killer whales. Cook Inlet had an estimated 1,300 belugas in 1979, a number that had shrunk to an estimated 278 by 2005. A 2008 survey showed a gain to about 375 animals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in one of its reports on Cook Inlet belugas.
Smith, the federal biologist, said the only known cause for the decline was over-hunting. Natives in the Cook Inlet region, using aboriginal hunting rights, traditionally took a few whales every year with no effect on the population, Smith said. But in the 1970s and 1980s, he said, the migration of Natives from western and northern coastal areas of Alaska to Anchorage led to the unregulated hunting of perhaps 100 or more belugas a year, an unsustainable number.
By the time officials realized what was happening and hunting was banned, the population had declined to dangerously low levels, Smith said.
"We expected with the curtailment of the harvest that they would recover," Smith said. "It's disappointing they haven't."
State officials argued that the numbers were increasing and had urged the federal government to back off. Environmental organizations pressed for greater protection.
Once belugas were designated as threatened or endangered, the 1973 Endangered Species Act requires "we also address its critical habitat," Smith said. "It's a pretty basic concept that animals can't live without habitat."
Because of the range of concerns, the agency took an extra year to prepare its ruling, Smith said. The fisheries service received 135,463 individual comments, though 134,959 were on form letters, it said.
The goal of the rule isn't to lock up territory but to allow the species to recover, Smith said. Because belugas historically coexisted with the Cook Inlet oil industry and with dredging for the Port of Anchorage and other areas, there's no reason to prevent that activity from continuing, though officials might increase regulation of noise, discharges and other activity that could harass whales, Smith said.
In fact, captains of large ships and dredges report that belugas don't seem to care about their slow-moving presence, Smith said. It's small vessels, even jet skis, which maneuver quickly and erratically like killer whales, that cause problems for belugas, he said.
On the other hand, the city may have to improve its treatment of the sewage it dumps into Cook Inlet from Point Woronzof, Smith said. The city's disposal permit comes up for renewal this summer, and the EPA will have to take into consideration the effect of the lightly treated effluent on belugas, he said.
Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said he didn't think the critical habitat designation would halt economic growth but feared it would add another layer of permitting and bureaucracy to an already slow-moving federal regulatory process.
Years ago, Popp said, it took oil and gas ventures three to five years from the start of a project to reach production.
"That time frame is now seven to 10 years, and now, what will this do? Make eight to 11 years, nine to 12 years? It's more unnecessary delay and impediment," Popp said
Even if the federal government is efficient in its permitting, the designation will make it easier for opponents of a development project to bring a lawsuit, he said.
In one of its economic studies, NOAA optimistically said that the designation of critical habitat could actual improve conditions for the oil industry by making the area more attractive to workers.
"Employees of the industry may be willing to work in the area, in part, because of the natural beauty, environmental quality and outdoor recreational opportunities available," NOAA said, though it also acknowledged the benefit to industry of beluga habitat protection "is likely to be relatively small."
Reach Richard Mauer at 257-4345 or email@example.com.