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How counting beluga whales can help build community and trust

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 11, 2017
  • Published September 11, 2017

Volunteers watch for little white whales at Beluga Point along the Seward Highway during NOAA’s “Belugas Count!” event on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

My daughter and I set out for the joy of a sunny fall morning on Turnagain Arm Saturday. I came back with a sense of change in how Alaskans feel about the environment.

The pullouts were full along the Seward Highway. Some people aimed big lenses on tripods standing firmly on the pavement. Others scrambled to the water's edge.

High tide had pulled a brilliant plain of calm, gray seawater up over the mudflats, as smooth as the cover on a well-made bed. Beluga whales' white backs popped from that flat, reflective water.

Each time they did, Verena Gill's phone played a tune. Gill is a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With a team of agencies and conservation groups, Gill organized an event called Belugas Count!, a citizen-science effort like the Christmas bird count to involve the public in studying Cook Inlet's endangered belugas.

Whenever someone saw a whale at any of 12 stations surrounding Turnagain and Knik arms, that person sent a group text and Gill's phone sang.

As we talked at Windy Corner Saturday, a report came in of a pod of 16 whales heading past Kincaid Park, honking. Gill turned to her 10-year-old daughter, Brianna Gill-Anderson, to run the information to a group keeping records at the other end of the parking lot.

Another report. Five white whales and a gray at Point MacKenzie.

A beluga viewing station at Windy Corner on Turnagain Arm was one of 12 set up in upper Cook Inlet to encourage stewardship of the endangered whale population. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

More than 1,200 people participated in the count, sighting 260 whales (although some sightings were duplicates). The most recent official count put the Inlet's total population at 328 whales, so the observers saw a good portion of how many live in our waters.

The cheer of a sunny morning and the excitement of seeing whales created a healthy buzz of smiling camaraderie. In the afternoon, counters retreated to the Alaska Zoo to hear talks, visit tables for information and munch cupcakes with beluga-shaped toppers.

I kept asking people about the controversy over the whales' Endangered Species Act listing. But folks just kept smiling.

Beluga whales were once much more common in the Inlet, with a count of 1,300 in the 1970s. The population crashed, apparently because of too much subsistence hunting, and conservationists began calling for protection 20 years ago.

Getting that protection took a long time against intense opposition from industry and Alaska's political establishment. Finally, in 2008, NOAA listed the unique Inlet population as an endangered species.

Politicians attacked the decision at the time, including Gov. Sarah Palin, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, Mat-Su Mayor Curt Menard and Rep. Don Young, who absurdly said the listing "ignores science," when the opposite was true.

It's a long and hallowed Alaska tradition to attack environmentalists as unreasonable, emotional and unscientific when you don't like the limitations environmental protection requires.

For decades, Alaska's environment versus development debate ran along those lines. Two sides formed in opposite trenches and used selected evidence to fire across no-man's land. Allowing the enemy's facts to change your mind would mean betraying your team.

Wishing doesn't change facts, but facts are weak in overcoming wishes.

Climate change has produced this kind of stalemate. Talking with those who deny the human role, I've found that batting away silly pseudo-science arguments may make little difference. Instead, the conversation often turns to the importance of freedom.

For some, the international cooperation needed to slow the changing climate smells too much like a frightening world government. With that deep distrust, it's easy to disbelieve the evidence of our impact on the climate.

More facts won't bridge this gap. The bridge needed is cultural, toward mutual acceptance and trust, and a shared appreciation for the natural world.

A beluga whale swims in Turnagain Arm on Sept. 9, 2017. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

On Saturday morning, belugas connected everyone.

Those who predicted doom for development in 2008 when belugas were listed have been proven wrong. Meanwhile, the value of the animals is undeniable if you love our region.

Suzanne Steinert, a graduate student who led the count at Girdwood, said she has encountered none of the controversy about beluga protection. As part of her graduate studies of the whales, she started the Beluga Whale Alliance in June to advocate for them.

"From what I've experienced so far, it's overwhelming positive support. It's really, like, incredible," she said. "I think people here do really value their presence. I think there really has been an increase in pride in that. . .  People do care about them and want to support their conservation."

Back at the zoo, current Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz spoke enthusiastically to the whale lovers. His basic point suggested the change in how we deal with these issues.

"We live in a time when facts matter," he said. "When we make policy about places that we live, it is important for us to do it on the basis of a real understanding of how many whales there are."

He continued, "There are a lot of development pressures in this state. There are a lot of challenges to doing things the right way. But we cannot make decisions about doing things the right way until we have the right facts."

Susan Culliney, a volunteer at the NOAA beluga count, marks down four whales spotted at Bird Point on Saturday. A pod of 15 to 22 whales passed by earlier. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Maybe Alaskans are learning to accept environmental facts more readily. I'm not sure. But I do think the debate is changing.

That's important for belugas, because their numbers are not recovering. We don't know why. It's possible a real solution to protecting them will be more costly.

Standing out in the sun counting them seemed relevant to that. Looking at whales is fun and inspiring. But more important, doing it together helps build a stronger community, and that is the basis of trust.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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