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Vol. 12, No. 17 Week of April 29, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Beluga ESA listing prompts debate

Resource groups challenge National Marine Fisheries Service’s data, proposal; question value of endangered species classification

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

The sparks are flying following the National Marine Fisheries Service’s announcement that the agency proposes listing the Cook Inlet beluga whales as an endangered species. (See initial story in the April 22 issue of Petroleum News.)

Everyone in Southcentral Alaska wants to see the beluga whale population rebound but “we don’t believe an Endangered Species Act listing will get you there,” Marilyn Crockett, deputy director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association told Petroleum News April 25.

“We believe a better course of action would be continued management under the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” said Carl Portman, deputy director of the Resource Development Council on April 24.

“We applaud the National Marine Fisheries Service for recognizing the plight of the Cook Inlet beluga,” said Karla Dutton, Alaska director with Defenders of Wildlife on April 19.

Both AOGA and RDC are concerned about the impact on economic activity of an Endangered Species Act listing. Under the terms of the act, NMFS would designate critical habitat areas for the whales. Any activity involving permitting or some other action by a federal government agency would require NMFS consultation, if a critical habitat might be impacted. This and other work associated with compliance with the act would add time and cost to projects, and could render some projects impractical or uneconomic.

“It also greatly increases the prospect of third-party litigation,” Portman said.

Distinct population

Although beluga whale populations exist in several regions around the coast of Alaska, the whale population in the Cook Inlet forms what NMFS terms a “distinct population segment,” in effect a sub-species that is distinct and isolated from beluga populations elsewhere.

And, according to data presented by NMFS, the Cook Inlet beluga population has plunged in recent years. A 1979 survey estimated the population to be nearly 1,300. Systematic aerial surveys starting in 1993 estimated a population decline from 653 in 1994 to 347 in 1998. That rapid drop in population in the 1990s appeared to result from unsustainable levels of subsistence hunting. Regulation of the hunting began in 1998, and the most recent abundance estimate, from 2005, suggests a population of 278 whales, NMFS says.

In 2000 NMFS refused to list the Cook Inlet belugas under the Endangered Species Act, opting instead to classify the whales as “depleted” under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. NMFS based its 2000 decision on an assumption that the population decline had resulted from subsistence hunting and that reductions in the subsistence harvest would reverse the decline. The depleted status under the Marine Mammals Protection Act has afforded a level of protection to the belugas, including the development of a conservation plan.

NMFS said in its April 20 Federal Register announcement of the proposed listing that it had expected the beluga whale population to recover at a rate of 2 to 6 percent per year following regulation of subsistence hunting. But “abundance estimates from aerial surveys (1999-2006) indicate this level of growth did not occur,” NMFS said.

2006 review

A status review published by NMFS in November 2006, using the most recent population estimates and a statistical model of the Cook Inlet beluga population, concluded that there is now more than a 65 percent probability that the population will continue to decline, despite tight limits on the subsistence hunting harvest. The review also estimated a 26 percent probability of extinction of the Cook Inlet belugas within 100 years.

That 26 percent probability of extinction greatly exceeds the NMFS criterion of a 1 percent probability to trigger an endangered species classification.

“We conclude that the Cook Inlet beluga whale is in danger of extinction throughout all of its range. … We also conclude that, at present, no protective or conservation measures are in place that will substantially mitigate the factors affecting the future viability and recovery of the Cook Inlet beluga whale distinct population segment,” NMFS said in its federal registry entry.

And environmental groups have strongly endorsed the NMFS position.

“The Endangered Species Act listing will help protect and restore these rare whales and their habitat for future generations,” Dutton said. “… We need to look at potential impacts from oil and gas development, sewage exposure, shipping, fishing and underwater seismic blasting to determine which are putting the most severe pressure on the beluga population. This endangered species designation will encourage this needed research and other actions to help recover this Cook Inlet icon.”

Questioning the data

But AOGA and RDC question both the data and the assumptions upon which NMFS has based its beluga decision. The population estimates are based on just one aerial survey per year. And those surveys underestimate the population because the grey color of juvenile belugas blends with the color of the Inlet water, thus making some of the belugas extremely difficult to spot (beluga whales become white when they mature), Crockett said. The population data collection during the 1970s also used unreliable methods, she said.

Anecdotal evidence from land observations suggest that the beluga population is in fact recovering, Portman said.

Crockett said that the NMFS expectations for the rate of recovery following the reduction in subsistence hunting were unrealistic, and that the population is probably slowly recovering. What’s really needed is more research into the beluga population and the reasons for population changes — NMFS only has funding for occasional overflights and for tagging, Crockett said.

“We feel that if they will wait perhaps five more years and do a lot of research in the meantime, that the surveys will start showing a significant rebound,” Portman said. “… It is too fast … to jump to an ESA listing.”

And Portman said that the limited research that has been done to date, including tissue sample analysis, has shown that the belugas have not been impacted by pollution. NMFS should base its decisions on the results of scientific research “as opposed to mere speculation,” Portman said. “… We feel that the science is really lacking.”

Crockett also commented that an endangered species listing for the belugas would affect many different entities around the Cook Inlet. In fact, the NMFS Federal Register entry lists potential Cook Inlet developments which may have adverse impacts on the Beluga whale habitat, including oil and gas exploration; Port of Anchorage and Port MacKenzie expansions; the Knik Arm Bridge and coal mining on the west side of Cook Inlet.

Crockett urges finding creative solutions to supporting the beluga whales, rather than the imposition of the consequences of an endangered species listing.

“We would like to see all the entities get round the table and find a better way to solve this problem,” Crockett said.

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NMFS critics say Cook Inlet beluga population recovering, more than 45% are juveniles

Critics of the NMFS proposal to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as an endangered species say that the whale population is likely recovering, following regulation of subsistence hunting of the whales since 1998 — a dramatic population decline prior to 1998 appears to have related to unsustainable levels of subsistence beluga hunting.

Industry-sponsored research provides reason for optimism about a population recovery, Jason Brune, executive director of the Resource Development Council, has told Petroleum News.

“A Chevron study has shown that over 45 percent of the individuals in Cook Inlet are juveniles, which indicates a growing population,” Brune said.

And because the juveniles are the same grey color as the water of the Inlet, it is very difficult to see them from an aerial survey, he said. Brune also said that because the beluga whale gestation period is very long, NMFS hasn’t allowed sufficient time to determine whether the population is recovering.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, beluga whales have a gestation period of 14 to 15 months. It takes three to eight years for juvenile whales to develop the white adult coloration that is characteristic of adults. Females take four to seven years to reach sexual maturity, while males take seven to nine years to reach sexual maturity.

—Alan Bailey