Beluga Whales Listed as Endangered Over Palin Protests

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, October 20, 2008 (ENS) - The Cook Inlet beluga whale population near Anchorage is in danger of extinction, and has been listed as an endangered species, federal fisheries regulators announced Friday.

"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," said James Balsiger, acting assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. Cook Inlet stretches 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage.

Listing the Cook Inlet beluga whales means any federal agency that funds, authorizes, or carries out new projects or activities that may affect the whales in the area must first consult with NOAA's Fisheries Service to determine the potential effects on the whales. A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.

The listing is going ahead over the objections of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is also running for the office of vice president on the Republican ticket with presidential nominee Senator John McCain.

"The State of Alaska has had serious concerns about the low population of belugas in Cook Inlet for many years," Governor Palin said Friday. "However, we believe that this endangered listing is premature."

In August 2007, Governor Palin wrote to the Fisheries Service asking that the Cook Inlet belugas not be listed as endangered for economic reasons.

"I am especially concerned that an unnecessary federal listing and designation of critical habitat would do serious long-term damage to the vibrant economy of the Cook Inlet area," Palin wrote. "Hundreds of thousands of people who live in this area know that we are taking excellent care of the environment and habitat there."

"For example," she wrote, "annual salmon runs in recent years are higher than they were when the beluga population was larger, in the 1970s. This wouldn't be possible without effective conservation efforts."

Conservation groups initially filed a petition to list the population as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in March 1999.

Opposition from the State of Alaska, local cities and boroughs, and industry groups led the Fisheries Service to reject the petition. Instead, in 2000, the agency listed the Cook Inlet beluga population as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

At that time, the Fisheries Service said that the imposition of restrictions on Alaska Native hunting imposed under that Act would lead to the population's recovery. Between 1999 and 2006, Alaska Native hunters took a total of five Cook Inlet beluga whales for subsistence. No beluga whales were harvested in 2007 or 2008., yet recovery of the population has not occurred.

Recent surveys show the Cook Inlet beluga whale's population now hovers around 375 animals, down from an estimated population of 1,300 whales in the early 1990s, according to scientific surveys.

In response to a petition submitted by the Trustees for Alaska and other conservation groups on April 20, 2006, the Fisheries Service proposed on April 20, 2007, that Cook Inlet beluga whales be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The act requires a final determination by October 20, 2008. Friday's announcement is the result of NOAA's scientific review of the proposal to list Cook Inlet belugas.

"We would have preferred that NOAA delay this endangered listing decision for a few years to get more population counts, and determine whether the cutback in hunting is working to help the beluga population recover," said Denby Lloyd, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"Our analysis of NOAA's data indicates that the population has been growing steadily in the last few years, just as studies had predicted."

"The science was clear - and it has been for a very long time," said marine mammal scientist Craig Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, one of the petitioning groups. "The population is critically endangered. The protections of the Endangered Species Act provide the safety net so that the population can escape extinction and recover."

"Hopefully the listing decision is not too late for the Cook Inlet beluga whale population's recovery," said John Schoen, senior scientist of Audubon-Alaska. "It is unfortunate that the population was not listed in 2000, when the scientific evidence was overwhelming that it should be listed under the ESA."

Cook Inlet is the most populated and fastest growing watershed in Alaska, and from oil and gas dumping, sewage discharges, contaminated runoff and regular shipping and pipeline spills, rising pollution levels threaten the Beluga whale and its habitat. Furthermore, several massive infrastructure projects – including the proposed Knik Arm Bridge, the Port of Anchorage Expansion, the Chuitna coal strip mine, and the Port MacKenzie expansion - will directly impact some of the whale's most important habitat.

Listing the Cook Inlet beluga whale will ensure that developers and scientists work together to avoid further population declines.

"This ends the debate about whether the beluga should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, and starts the critically important process of actually working to recover the species and protect its habitat," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Hopefully the State of Alaska will now work towards protecting the beluga rather than, as with the polar bear, denying the science and suing to overturn the listing."

"Of course, whenever you have a population of marine mammals that is this low, it is a cause for serious concern," said Commissioner Lloyd. "We just aren't sure that an endangered listing, and all the legal requirements it brings with it, is necessary to assure the health of this population at this time."

NOAA's Balsiger says the recovery of the Cook Inlet whales is potentially hindered by strandings; continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet and the cumulative effects on important beluga habitat; oil and gas exploration, development, and production; industrial activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants; disease; and predation by killer whales.

This year new drilling is planned by Alaska operators for natural gas in the Cook Inlet. ConocoPhillips, Chevron and Marathon Oil, and Armstrong Oil and Gas are all planning new development wells.

The agency will identify habitat essential to the conservation of Cook Inlet belugas in a separate rulemaking within a year.

Cook Inlet belugas are one of five populations of belugas recognized within U.S. waters. The other beluga populations inhabit Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea, and the Beaufort Sea.

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