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Cook Inlet's white whales still declining


October 17, 2006
Tuesday AM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Seven years after a virtual halt to Native subsistence hunts was thought to have put a depleted stock of Cook Inlet beluga whales on a path to recovery, marine mammal scientists counting the bright white whales from the air last summer spotted fewer than ever.

Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service say the aerial surveys in June and August are not always the best evidence of how many belugas are there. A harder "abundance estimate" that takes into account whales observers didn't see because they were below the surface, or juveniles with gray hides that are difficult to spot in the silty Inlet, is still under development.




But the roughly 150 belugas counted this year are not reassuring, particularly coming after 2005, when the agency's abundance estimate for the number remaining in Cook Inlet was set at 278, the lowest figure since NMFS began the annual beluga surveys in 1993. The number could range from as many as 398 to as few as 194.

"It's very much a concern," said Brad Smith, a marine mammal biologist with the fisheries service.

While tens of thousands of belugas exist in waters off other parts of Alaska, only a few hundred members of a genetically distinct group remain in Cook Inlet. Their numbers plummeted from as many as 1,300 in the 1980s to about 350 in the late 1990s. Advocates of listing them under the Endangered Species Act argue that their numbers are so few the local belugas could become extinct. Some federal biologists are beginning to worry about that too.

State and local government officials have a different concern - that stronger regulations protecting the Cook Inlet whales might threaten expansion and growth in the region.

Pressure from subsistence hunters in Anchorage and other places around the Inlet was thought to be the most likely cause of the population plunge. Faced with a petition to list the Cook Inlet belugas as an endangered species in 2000, NMFS instead entered into agreements with Native organizations that dropped the take by hunters from as many as 60 or so in some years to only one or two whales a year. Biologists predicted the whale population would begin to rebound within about five years.

"That has not happened," Smith said last week.

Overhunting may have caused the mid-1990s population drop, "but it's obviously not the reason they're not recovering," said Rod Hobbs, a biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. "There's something else going on that would prevent them from recovering."

The disappointing population trend comes as NMFS is reviewing a renewed petition filed by Trustees for Alaska on behalf of a dozen environmental and conservation groups to classify the Cook Inlet whales as endangered, a prospect that has local governments and industries in Southcentral Alaska jittery.

In June, the board of directors of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority authorized its staff to spend up to $50,000 for lawyers to fight the listing. Mayors of Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough have pledged $25,000 each to hire another law firm to lobby federal agencies and the state's congressional delegation.

They're worried that classifying the whales as endangered, and identifying areas of "critical habitat" in the Inlet, could affect an array of existing and proposed developments, from expansion at the Port of Anchorage, to the Mat-Su Borough ferry service scheduled to start next year, to the $600 million Knik Arm bridge the authority wants to build between Anchorage and Point MacKenzie.

Bill Popp handles the beluga issue for Kenai Borough Mayor John Williams. "We're on the record repeatedly as being dissatisfied with the work NMFS has done to date," Popp said. "We're seeking legislation from the federal government for NMFS to do the science they say they don't have enough money for."

Mat-Su Borough Manager John Duffy said the Assembly there hasn't yet voted on its part of the bill. While borough officials are concerned about potential effects on its Port MacKenzie and ferry plans, they also "understand the (need) for protection of habitat and important wildlife resources like beluga whales," Duffy said. "We're interested in striking that balance."

Mayor Mark Begich says he's concerned an endangered species listing could delay a major expansion under way at the Port of Anchorage. Already, three federal agencies have asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hold up permits for a new dock until more analysis of its effects on Ship Creek salmon is done. And Begich said more protection for belugas could threaten a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency waiver that lets Anchorage discharge sewage into the Inlet with a lower level of treatment than would otherwise be required. Upgrading the utility's plants could cost $400 million to $600 million, Begich and utility officials say.

Advocates of stronger protection for the whales say those fears are overstated. Listing a species as endangered doesn't apply brakes to most development, said Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper, one of the organizations petitioning for the listing. It means federal agencies must consult with NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on projects that may affect the animals. In almost all cases, the agencies find ways for projects to proceed without harming the animals listed, Shavelson said, citing a 1992 General Accounting Office report to Congress.

An endangered species listing does, however, allow biologists to designate areas of specially protected "critical habitat." It also makes available more funding to look into the causes of population declines and to find ways to reverse them, said John Schoen, senior scientist with Audubon Alaska.

"If Cook Inlet lost beluga whales it would be quite an indictment of our ability to conserve our environment and manage our resources in a productive way," Schoen said.

The biologists' best guesses at the number of belugas in the Inlet suggest the population has at best remained stagnant since hunting restrictions were imposed. If the abundance estimate for this year is similar to the 278-whale estimate for last year, "we're going to have to (assume) the population has declined," Hobbs said.

And smaller populations are more vulnerable to sudden, catastrophic threats like oil spills or mass strandings, Hobbs and Schoen said.

"A stranding event or, potentially, killer whale predation in the right circumstances could really put the population over the edge," Schoen said. "So it's not just a human-cause issue, but the population is so small I think all marine mammal scientists who have looked at this ... are very concerned."

How fast could the whale population recover?

"You just don't see cetacean populations increasing rapidly," Hobbs said. "With belugas, (if) only half the population are females and only half are mature females," survival rests on a quarter of the population, which give birth every three or four years.

"At best, they're staying at a fairly constant population level" instead of a growth rate that should be between 2 to 6 percent a year, he said.

"With that, we'd expect abundance estimates to be averaging at least 400 by now, not dropping below 300," Hobbs said.

Smith, the NMFS biologist in Anchorage, said the agency expects to produce an "extinction risk analysis" within about a month. They are also looking for other factors that could be hampering the belugas' recovery.

Like what?

"There are a couple of issues that are fairly obvious," Hobbs said. "There could be some pollution in the Inlet that's affecting reproduction or survival, or just the general health of the animals."

Salmon runs could also be a factor. The belugas feed heavily on the fish in summer.

"It's possible that if they're not getting enough salmon it would affect their survival through the winter," Hobbs said.



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