The federal government on Friday determined that a species of beluga whale native to an inlet off Anchorage, Alaska, is endangered and will require additional protection to survive.
The finding could even have presidential implications: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain's running mate, had questioned scientific evidence that the population was declining.
The listing has the potential to affect major Alaska projects including an expansion of the Port of Anchorage, additional offshore oil and gas drilling, a proposed $600 million bridge connecting Anchorage to Palin's hometown of Wasilla and a massive coal mine 45 miles south of Anchorage.
The state does have serious concerns about the low population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet and has had those concerns for many years, Palin said in a statement. "However, we believe that this endangered listing is premature," she said.
Palin in April successfully lobbied for a six-month delay in a listing decision until a count of the whales this summer could be included in deliberations. That count showed no increase over 2007 numbers — 375 whales, compared with a high of 653 in 1995.
'Whales are not recovering'
"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," James Balsiger, assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said in a statement.
The population declined nearly 50 percent between 1994 and 1998, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the fisheries service.
"NOAA scientists estimated the Cook Inlet beluga population at 375 for both 2007 and 2008," NOAA stated. "Estimates have varied from a high of 653 belugas in 1994 to a low of 278 belugas in 2005."
Acting on a 2006 request for listing by the Center for Biological Diversity and several allies, NOAA in April 2007 proposed that the population be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Friday's action represents the final determination to list the Cook Inlet belugas.
"Despite restrictions on Alaskan Native subsistence harvest of Cook Inlet belugas starting in 1999, the population is still not recovering," NOAA added. "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."
Cook Inlet belugas are one of five beluga populations in U.S. waters. The others, all off Alaska, inhabit Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea, and the Beaufort Sea.
"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 stocks," NOAA said.
Potential obstacles to recovery, NOAA said, include:
- Beach strandings of beluga whales;
- 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;
- Predation by killer whales.
NOAA said that within a year it would identify habitat essential to protecting the belugas.
Palin had opposed the endangered listing — as well as one decreed for polar bears due to melting summer sea ice — in part by questioning the science and saying the listings would hinder oil and natural gas drilling.
The Interior Department has proposed making available oil leases in the Cook Inlet as early as next year and in 2011, saying the waters have an estimated $1.38 billion worth of energy resources. Protection of the whale could hinder some of those activities.
The polar bear listing came with a caveat that it should not hinder economic development — a move being challenged in court by environmentalists.
But no such caveat came with the beluga whale listing. "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," NOAA stated. "A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species."
Friday's action came after the Center for Biological Diversity accused the Bush administration of stalling, stating that federal law required the listing and identifying critical habitat by last April.
Cook Inlet stretches 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage. It is named for Capt. James Cook, the British explorer who sailed into the inlet in 1778 on a quest to find the Northwest Passage.
Beluga whales feed on salmon and smaller fish. They can also eat crab, shrimp, squid and clams. During summers, the whales, which reach a length of up to 15 feet, often can be spotted from the highways leading away from Anchorage, gathered at river mouths, chasing salmon that have schooled before a run to spawning grounds.
Beluga whales' natural enemies are killer whales, but something else has been keeping their numbers down in Alaska's Cook Inlet.
Craig Matkin, an independent biologist who has worked in south central Alaska for 25 years, said the delay in the listing had held up a comprehensive research plan to find out why the population had not recovered after subsistence hunting was curtailed.
The concern is not just in numbers, he said, but in distribution. Whales in recent years have been staying in northern Cook Inlet near Anchorage.
"They're just gone from these areas," he said of his own home near in Homer, near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and about 100 miles from Anchorage. "Why they aren't coming down into this habitat is a question I'd like to answer."
Future development won't be helpful to the recovery, said Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, starting with the noise and pollution associated with industrialization of the inlet, which includes oil rigs off the Kenai Peninsula.
Global warming, changing ocean conditions and higher temperatures in salmon streams may be another factor, Cummings said.
The Port of Anchorage, helped by congressional earmarks secured by Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, has embarked on a $500 million project to double the port's size and replace its aging docks.
Environmental groups also have expressed concern about a planned coal mine 45 miles from Anchorage across Cook Inlet, where developers propose to mine 300 million metric tons of sub-bituminous coal, roughly equal to the energy of a billion barrels of oil, over 25 years. That would mean noise and boat traffic associated with building and operating a mine, a potential effect on salmon streams and more warming.