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Critical Habitat for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales Proposed
NOAA to hold public meeting & accepting comments


December 02, 2009
Wednesday AM

(SitNews) - NOAA's Fisheries Service announced yesterday that it is seeking public comment today on a proposal that identifies more than a third of Cook Inlet in Alaska as critical habitat for the remaining approximately 300 endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales.

In October 2008, NOAA's Fisheries Service listed Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), NOAA's Fisheries Service must designate critical habitat for all listed species.

"We have used the best available science and the traditional knowledge of Alaska natives to identify areas essential to helping Cook Inlet beluga whales survive," said Doug Mecum, acting administrator of NOAA's Fisheries Service Alaska region. "Protecting these endangered whales is one of our top priorities."

jpg Proposed critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Proposed critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales.
Graphic courtesy NOAA

The ESA requires designation of critical habitat whenever a species is listed for protection. Federal agencies must consult with NOAA's Fisheries Service to ensure that they do not fund, authorize, or carry out a project that will destroy or adversely modify the critical habitat. This requirement does not apply to activities on private land that do not involve a federal agency, permit or funding.

Managers expect to have a final designation of critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whales in the spring of 2010.

The NOAA's Fisheries Service proposal designates a total of 3,016 square miles, including the upper portions of Cook Inlet, where whales concentrate in summer months, mid-Cook Inlet, the western shore of lower Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay on the eastern side of the lower inlet.

NOAA's Fisheries Service experts believe Cook Inlet beluga whales once numbered more than 1,300, but only around 300 remain, according to the latest population estimates completed in June. NOAA's Fisheries Service biologists and scientists have surveyed the Cook Inlet beluga whale, estimated the species' abundance and reviewed the population's status. They have also collected tissue samples, carried out necropsies on whales found dead and responded to beluga whale strandings.

In their formal status review of Cook Inlet beluga whales, NOAA's Fisheries Service scientists estimated a 26 percent chance that these whales will become extinct in the next 100 years.

Cook Inlet belugas are one of five populations of belugas recognized within U.S. waters. The other beluga populations, which are not listed as threatened or endangered, summer in Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea. Of the five populations of beluga whales in Alaska, the Cook Inlet population is considered to be the most isolated based on the degree of genetic differentiation and geographic distance between the Cook Inlet population and the four other beluga populations.

The recovery of Cook Inlet whales is potentially hindered by severe stranding events; continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet; industrial and municipal activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants; disease; predation by killer whales and losses of available prey to fishing or loss of prey habitat. Protecting habitat is essential to the beluga whales' recovery.

Governor Sean Parnell strongly objected to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's proposal to designate more than one-third of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for beluga whales.

"Listing more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat would do little to help grow the beluga population, but it would devastate economic opportunities in the region," Governor Parnell said. "The beluga whale population has been coexisting with industry for years. The main threat facing belugas was over-harvest, which is now regulated under a cooperative harvest management plan. Belugas are also protected under the Marine Mammal Act."

Parnell said the proposal designates a total of 3,016 square miles, including all upper portions of Cook Inlet, where whales concentrate in summer months; mid-Cook Inlet; the entire western shore of lower Cook Inlet; and Kachemak Bay on the eastern side of the lower inlet.

In addition, four species of Pacific salmon (Chinook, sockeye, coho and chum) are listed as essential elements of the proposed critical habitat. This could lead to federal involvement in salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet said Parnell.

"We are concerned about the effect this could have on commercial, recreational, and personal use fishing opportunities throughout the Cook Inlet fisheries," said Doug Vincent-Lang of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Parnell said the state will review and submit comments on the proposal and will closely examine the extent of the proposed critical habitat. NOAA has the discretion to exclude areas of military or economic importance, as long as doing so does not jeopardize the continued existence of the species. The state is also reviewing all legal options regarding the listing and the proposed critical habitat designation.

In response to the proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to designate at least one-third of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for beluga whales, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a prepared statement, "I appreciate that the National Marine Fisheries Service has tried to identify the most important areas for the beluga whale in Cook Inlet, using the limited but available science. I have not had an opportunity to read the economic analysis that estimates the low economic impact of the proposed rule, but I sincerely hope they are correct that it will not cause economic harm to the region. I remain concerned, however, since our experience with critical habitat in other areas of the state is that a designation can sometimes lead to costly delays in permitting, construction and protracted litigation."

Murkowski said, "While NOAA has recognized that they can exclude areas under section 4(b)(2) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), they chose not to. I would encourage the agency to strongly consider some of the requests, including the Port of Anchorage and our two military bases, to be excluded from designation."

"I am also concerned with potential action on activities that the agency has identified, that may restrict the beluga's use of the habitat and ability to secure prey, including salmon and hooligan. I encourage Alaskans to read the proposed rule and provide comments on the economic impacts that this proposed designation might have on them," said Sen. Murkowski.

U.S. Senator Mark Begich said in a prepared statement, "Alaska is an ocean state so the fish and wildlife which thrive in our waters are not an abstract scientific notion. Every Alaskan who has enjoyed watching beluga whales from the shoreline along Turnagain Arm knows these animals are important to us. That's why Alaskans are committed to protecting the beluga whales in Cook Inlet."

Begich said, "At the same time, development in Cook Inlet is necessary for Alaska's economy and we've taken numerous steps to ensure that it can coexist with the fish and wildlife of the region. This includes careful monitoring at Anchorage's wastewater treatment plant, habitat protection for streams that flow into the inlet, and environmentally responsible expansion of the Port of Anchorage."

"The Bush administration in October 2008 listed the Cook Inlet beluga as endangered so we've long known this next shoe would drop - this proposed designation of critical habitat. This could potentially cost Southcentral residents hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade facilities without a clear benefit for the environment," said Begich.

"In this proposed designation, NOAA chose not to address the Port of Anchorage's request for an exemption due to the port's strategic and economic importance. I strongly urge NOAA to reevaluate the Port's request in the final designation. Also troubling is the potential impact this action could have on military deployments through the Port of Anchorage, which are vital for our nation's defense," said Begich.

"Alaskans now have 60 days to let federal fisheries managers know of their concerns and how this proposed designation could affect them. I urge Alaskans to weigh in," said Begich.

Congressman Don Young (R-AK) said in a prepared statement, "These federal agencies claim these decisions are made on the best science available, but it is their own commissioned science. If the state commissioned its own scientists, I bet their studies would show something different. This is just another attempt to halt resource production and development in Alaska, and a step towards making the whole state a national park for the enjoyment of Outsiders. This is just one more instance in a pattern of misuse of the Endangered Species Act for purposes wholly unrelated to the health and welfare of the animals. "

Young said, "Alaska is under attack by these extreme environmental groups that are looking to increase their fundraising goals with their deceptive portrayals of our vast and flourishing wildlife. The Port of Anchorage's request for an exemption has yet to be addressed; the Port is an economic stronghold for our state and if their exemption is not granted, the listing of the beluga will surely hurt their activity. I hope NOAA realizes the far-reaches this decision would have and rethinks their decision as they continue to aid in the hindrance of development in Alaska."

Also commenting on the critical habitat for beluga whale proposal. Marine Mammal Biologist Craig Matkin, Executive Director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society said, "NMFS has clearly relied on the best available science to identify and designate the habitat needed to give the Cook Inlet beluga whale a fighting chance at survival."

In support of the proposal Rebecca Noblin, attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity's Anchorage office, said, "If we quickly act to designate and protect the critical habitat of the Cook Inlet beluga, this highly imperiled whale has a real chance of recovery. A species as critically imperiled as the Cook Inlet beluga whale should not have to endure further delay before its habitat is truly protected."

"Cook Inlet beluga whales are one of the most endangered populations of marine mammals in the world," said Taryn Kiekow, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Marine Mammal Protection Project. "The decision to designate critical habitat is long overdue and absolutely necessary to preserving and protecting this unique population from further harm."

Also supportive of the proposal, Toby Smith, Executive Director of the Alaska Center for the Environment said, "Historic data shows that ESA listings and healthy economies go hand in hand, This habitat designation will bring about the balance we need to promote truly responsible development while protecting one of Alaska's most popular wildlife icons."

Cook Inletkeeper said in a news release the original decline of the Cook Inlet beluga was likely caused by unregulated harvests, but the population has failed to rebound since hunting was curtailed in 1999, indicating that other factors likely are interfering with its recovery.

Cook Inlet is the most populated and fastest-growing watershed in Alaska, and is subject to significant offshore oil and gas development in beluga habitat. Additionally, other sources will require heightened attention, including polluted runoff and sewage, noise, the proposed Knik Arm Bridge, the Port of Anchorage expansion, the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine and the proposed export facility for the Pebble mine according to the Cook Inletkeeper news release.

"Today's proposal is an important step toward embracing science and not politics to protect the Cook Inlet beluga, but protections for the whale remain far from complete," said Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper. "Now NMFS needs to prepare a recovery plan and start to seriously scrutinize activities that destroy beluga habitat."

In January 2009, former governor Sarah Palin announced the state of Alaska would sue the federal government to overturn endangered species protections for the beluga; however, the state has yet to file a lawsuit.

"It makes little sense for the State to waste public dollars trying to fight the science that supports the beluga habitat designation," Noblin said. "If the state wants to act in the best interests of Alaskans, it will work to safeguard Cook Inlet, which will not only protect the beluga whale, but the whole ecosystem, including the fish and fisheries that depend upon it."

Tuesday's proposal triggers a public comment period and likely public hearings before the rule could be finalized and take legal effect.

NOAA announced the comment period on the proposed critical habitat area opens December 2, 2009 and comments must be received by January 31, 2010.

Send comments to: Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources, Alaska Region, NOAA Fisheries, ATTN: Ellen Sebastian. Comments must be identified by "RIN 0648-AX50" and sent by any one of the following methods:

  • Electronic submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal website at
  • Mail: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK, 99802-1668.
  • Fax: 907-586-7557
  • Hand deliver to the Federal Building: 709 West 9th Street, Room 420A, Juneau, AK

Sources of News:

NOAA Fisheries Service in Alaska

Office of the Governor of Alaska

Office of U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski

Office of U.S. Senator Mark Begich

Office of Congressman Don Young

Alaska Center for the Environment

Center for Biological Diversity

Cook Inletkeeper

North Gulf Oceanic Society

Natural Resources Defense Council

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Ketchikan, Alaska