Cook Island Beluga Whales Essay, Research Paper
A half-dozen conservation organizations today plan to file a petition under
a little-known state law seeking to have Cook Inlet beluga whales
declared an endangered species.
Conservation groups filed a request to have the whales listed as a federal
endangered species this spring. The National Marine Fisheries Service
has until next spring to make a decision on that request, but
representatives for the groups said they decided to seek a state
designation under Alaska’s Endangered Species law to add another layer
of protection for the belugas.
Jack Sterne, an attorney for the environmental law firm Trustees for
Alaska, said state Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue will have 30
days to either reject the petition or schedule hearings on the request. The
federal process takes more time and is more cumbersome.
A handful of animals and birds have been designated endangered under
the state statute after making the federal list. Sterne said this may be the
first time anyone has petitioned the state to list a species that has not
already been so designated by the federal government.
Biologists say Cook Inlet belugas are a distinct population and their
numbers have plummeted from an estimated 650 in 1994 to about 350
last summer. Federal biologists are still analyzing population surveys taken
Increased harvest by Native hunters is believed to have caused the
decline, but Kris Balliet, Alaska director of the Center for Marine
Conservation, said other human activity in and around the Inlet may
hamper the whales’ ability to recover.
Noise and discharges from oil and gas platforms, competition from
commercial fishermen for food sources like hooligan and salmon, pollution
from Anchorage’s water and wastewater treatment plant, urban and
industrial runoff, and increased vessel traffic through the Inlet all could be
working against the whales, even if they are not a primary cause of their
decline, Balliet said.
“There’s been an awful lot of attention on the hunting of the whales,”
Balliet said. “Overhunting did contribute to this animal’s precipitous
decline. But we have moved beyond the place of looking at what brought
us here, and to look not only to their recovery but their ability to survive
Having the whales designated endangered under the state law would
allow Rue to designate all of Cook Inlet a “critical habitat” and restrict
human activities that degrade habitat or impede the recovery of the
belugas, Sterne said. Balliet said the part of Cook Inlet used by the
whales is largely in state waters, which extend three miles out from the
Southcentral business and industry groups opposed the request for a
federal endangered species designation for the whales and may oppose
the state request, too.
Ken Freeman, executive director of the Resource Development Council
for Alaska, said it’s a mistake to focus on development activities that
aren’t related to the population decline, instead of working to forge a
co-management agreement between Native hunters and NMFS.
Freeman said he had not seen the petition.
“One thing we all agree about is we want to see the population recover,”
he said. “We would much prefer that our energy and focus was on
creating the ability to manage the harvest. That’s where the problem lies.”
Concern about the whales caused a state judge to remove five tracts from
an oil and gas lease sale in Cook Inlet last spring, and a channel dredging
project near Anchorage was cleared only after the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers reached a monitoring agreement with environmental groups,
including some of those who are now petitioning the state.
Hunting of Cook Inlet belugas was prohibited last summer, and Native
hunters are negotiating with NMFS to complete a co-management
agreement that would limit annual harvests before hunting resumes.
The petition was flown to Juneau on Monday night and should reach
Rue’s desk today, Sterne and Balliet said. Other petitioners include the
Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaska Community Action on Toxics,
Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the National Audubon Society and the Center
for Biological Diversity.