Sullivan, Young call for study of Inlet beluga whales

Don Hunter

Two of the state's top politicians Tuesday said the state should finance an aggressive round of scientific research of Cook Inlet's beluga whales to counter a federal conclusion that the whales are endangered and need special habitat protections.

Congressman Don Young and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, speaking at a joint news conference at City Hall, also said they are asking the government to extend for 60 days a comment period on designating critical habitat for the whales. The Anchorage Assembly earlier unanimously passed a resolution asking for the extension on comments, which now is set to expire Feb. 1.

Sullivan said federal agencies should also hold a public hearing in Anchorage.

"Virtually every department in the city and every business in the region has a stake in this," Sullivan said, citing potential restrictions on discharges from Anchorage's water and sewer utility, noise limits at Stevens International Airport, air quality issues, oil and gas development, expansion at the Port of Anchorage and a proposed Knik Arm bridge.

"All those things come into effect with this beluga designation," Sullivan said. "Every one of those projects could be in jeopardy, and we cannot allow that to happen."

Federal scientists say the Cook Inlet belugas are a genetically distinct species and don't intermingle with beluga populations in other parts of Alaska and the Arctic. Their numbers have plummeted since the early 1980s, and a study released in 2007 projected a one-in-four chance the Cook Inlet belugas could go extinct within 100 years if nothing is done.

Young called that "false science."

"I personally don't believe this is a different species of beluga whale (than those) in Kotzebue that we kill and eat many times up there," he said. "I don't believe there's a bit of difference."

But opponents of the listing need more ammunition, Young said, and the state is the logical source to finance new science on the whales.

"The state should have the science available to (contradict) what comes forth," he said. "Let's see whether they're right or not, but not accept what they tell us because we have no way to argue with it."

An Anchorage spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups that petitioned the government to list the whales as endangered, said there's no question that Cook Inlet's whales "are genetically distinct and geographically isolated."

"We don't need more science to know that the population is in decline and is in trouble," said the Center's Rebecca Noblin.

Sullivan said he plans to add a request for the science funding to the city's list of priorities for next year's legislative session, which starts in January.

In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Sean Parnell's office said his fiscal year 2011 budget already includes $150,000 to leverage another $450,000 in federal money for scientific research on marine mammals listed as endangered, including the Cook Inlet belugas.

"Listing decisions and critical habitat designations should be based on sound science, and we look forward to working with our congressional delegation and local leaders to address research needs," Parnell's statement says.

According to federal estimates, the Inlet's beluga population has declined from about 1,300 animals in 1979 to about 320 this year. Subsistence hunting was thought to have caused the slump in their numbers, but hunting was curtailed more than 10 years ago, and the population has not recovered as scientists had hoped. The whales were listed as endangered in October 2008, and after additional research the National Marine Fisheries Service three weeks ago proposed designating more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the whales.

The proposed critical habitat areas will comprise all of upper Cook Inlet, the coastal areas of western Cook Inlet and most of Kachemak Bay.

Supporters say restrictions to protect the whales won't stop development in Cook Inlet, but it will have to be done responsibly.

"That's something Alaskans should see as a benefit," Noblin said. "If we have cleaner water in Cook Inlet, that's good for everybody, not just belugas."

Young argues that designating critical habitat for the whales opens the door for lawsuits to be filed against projects and for more environmental protections. Sullivan said the costs could hit "hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars."

"An investment into research, I think, would be money well spent," Sullivan said. "The state is the only entity with the resources right now to help us do that."

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