The National Marine Fisheries Service has issued a proposed rule that would put Cook Inlet’s beluga whales on the endangered species list, a move industry groups say may have severe economic impacts to the Cook Inlet region, without clear corresponding benefits to the whale population.
NMFS’ decision came after it had completed a status review of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population.
In 2000, the federal agency identified over-harvesting by subsistence hunters as the primary factor behind the beluga stock declining by nearly 50 percent between 1994 and 1999. Legislation developed by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, limited the subsistence harvest to one or two animals per year under a co-management agreement.
The Resource Development Council for Alaska, one of the groups opposing the designation of Cook Inlet belugas as an endangered species, told members in a July 18 action alert that “NMFS has not identified any development activity that impedes the recovery of this stock of whales. If this proposed rule is finalized, critical habitat in Cook Inlet will be designated. Critical habitat designations would pose far-reaching significant impacts to human activities in and around Cook Inlet, including shipping, oil and gas exploration, development and production, wastewater utility discharges, commercial and industrial coastal development, and commercial and sport fishing.”
The Alaska Support Industry Alliance sent out a similar action alert to members.
RDC said the beluga whales in Cook Inlet “are showing signs of a growing population,” pointing to a recent independent study that shows more than 40 percent of the population classified as subadult, and not yet capable of sexual reproduction.
Regulation of subsistence hunting of the whales has cut the harvest to just eight whales since 1998, which NMFS thought would result in a population recovery of between 2 and 6 percent per year. But the 2006 NMFS survey estimated a population of 302 whales, suggesting a continuing population decline rather than the expected rebound.
RDC disputes NMFS population numbersHowever, RDC Executive Director Jason Brune told Petroleum News in May that the independent beluga survey funded by Chevron shows that NMFS data underestimated the population size.
Chevron spokeswoman Roxanne Sinz told Petroleum News in May that the independent survey, conducted in the summer and fall of 2005 and 2006, set out to build an identification catalogue of the whales, and to “examine the abundance, behavior and population characteristics of beluga whales in upper Cook Inlet.” The researchers identified individual whales from the whales’ physical characteristics, using photographs taken during 132 whale encounters involving 99 surveys in the Knik Arm, in the Susitna Flats and from road sightings along Turnagain Arm.
By distinguishing and identifying individual whales, the researchers counted a total of 350 animals. That count is larger than the NMFS estimate but may nevertheless underestimate the total population because the Chevron research only surveyed part of the Cook Inlet beluga geographic range and the researchers have not attempted to extrapolate their findings to a total population count for the inlet.
The Chevron research found that approximately 43 percent of the beluga population had not reached maturity, Sinz said. “The high percentage of subadults indicates not only a healthy population but one that is recovering.”
Brune also thinks that it is too early to determine that the beluga population is declining, especially given the very long beluga whale gestation period. And running a population model using uncertain and underestimated population data results in meaningless projections — NMFS population estimates involve high levels of uncertainty, he said.
But Rod Hobbs, leader of the beluga project at the national marine mammal laboratory of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, told Petroleum News that the NMFS population model used to project future Cook Inlet whale populations includes the known characteristics of the beluga whale life cycle and factors in the uncertainties in the population census. The model was run using the first age of reproduction set one-third at five years, one-third at six years and one-third at seven years, he said.
That model found a 65 percent probability that the population would continue to decline — increasing the initial age of reproduction does not result in a major degradation in that statistic.
“If you change that to 10 years it doesn’t make much difference,” Hobbs said. The model also predicted a 26 percent probability of extinction of the Cook Inlet belugas within 100 years. That 26 percent probability greatly exceeds the NMFS criterion of a 1 percent probability that triggers an endangered species classification.
Brune said that more research is needed into the factors that impact the beluga population — the existence of a thriving beluga population during the heyday of Cook Inlet oil exploration indicates that this type of industrial activity does not impact the whales, he said. Hobbs said that NMFS is looking for ways to do more research.
NMFS says it has no choiceBut with the survey data and the population model pointing to a beluga population in trouble, NMFS has no option but to seek listing of the whales under the Endangered Species Act, regardless of why a population decline may be happening, Hobbs said.
“As with any large mammal population, recovery will take time and an endangered listing at this point will only lead to additional consultations, increased costs, and time delays, without clear corresponding benefits to this stock of beluga whales,” RDC said.
Deadline for public comments to NMFS is Aug. 3. RDC has information on its Web site at www.akrdc.org/alerts/2007/cookinletbelugaesa.html. A public meeting will be held in Soldotna in the borough assembly chambers on July 27 from 6-9 p.m. Comments can be directly submitted to Kaja Brix, assistant regional administrator (Attn: Ellen Walsh), Protected Resource Division, NMFS, Alaska Region, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668; or faxed to Walsh’s attention at (907) 586-7557; or e-mailed to CIB-ESA-Endangered@noaa.gov, using “CI Beluga Status Review” as the subject line.