State to sue over beluga whale protection

Last week Governor Sarah Palin
announced that the State of Alaska fi led
a notice of intent to sue over the federal
government’s decision to list the Cook
Inlet beluga whales as endangered.
The governor’s announcement caused
many scientists and wildlife protection
groups to quickly criticize her decision.
The whales had been listed as “depleted”
under the Marine Mammal Protection
Act prior to October 2008 when the
federal government changed that listing to
“endangered.”
Endangered species coordinator at the
Alaska Department of Fish and Game,
Doug Vincent Lang said there was a
reason to be concerned, but that this level
of concern was not yet necessary.
“[Scientists’] own models show a less
than one percent probability that the
whales will go extinct in the next 50 years,”
Vincent-Lang said. “We don’t think that
shows a suffi cient risk of extinction.”
A population risk assessment done
by National Marine Fisheries Service,
however, projected that the Cook Inlet
beluga whales have a 26 percent risk of
extinction in the next 100 years. NMFS
conducted a beluga whale count in 2008,
which gave an estimate of 375 Cook Inlet
beluga whales.
According to Vincent-Lang, this
number is 30 percent larger than the
population count conducted three to four
years ago, which estimated 275 whales. In
1994, though, NOAA estimated there to be
653 of the whales in the Cook Inlet.
John Schoen, senior scientist at
Audubon Alaska, said that listing the
species as endangered was the responsible
thing to do.
“The science is very clear,” Schoen
said. “It’s geographically and genetically
isolated, and [the population] has declined
quite a substantial extent in the last 20
years.”
According to Schoen, the beluga whales
of Cook Inlet are genetically distinct
which only increases their vulnerability.
Scientists are also concerned with the
beluga whale’s tendency to group. Any
type of catastrophe could possibly affect
95 percent of the beluga population since
they concentrate heavily in one area,
Schoen said.
Another factor that threatens the whale
population is their very low reproductive
rate. There is estimated to be between 115
to 120 reproductively active females and a
female does not produce a calf until she is
between 4 to 10 years old, Schoen said.
According to the department of Fish
and Game, however, the state has not
received any evidence that the Cook Inlet
beluga whale is genetically distinct.
“We want to see the evidence that in fact
these whales are distinct from any other
whale population,” Vincent-Lang said.
The State of Alaska’s notice of intent to
sue was sent to the Secretary of Commerce
and NMFS, requesting that the listing be
withdrawn.
According to the department, the state
already has development activity programs
along with a wide range of regulatory
programs that consider the protection of
the whales-programs like a water quality
monitoring program and an oil spill
contingency plan.
“They didn’t consider regulatory
programs the state has in place to protect
their habitat,” Vincent-Lang said.
But according to Bob Shavelson,
executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, a
nonprofi t watershed protection group, the
listing provides the belugas with a new
and necessary protection.
“It requires the government to identify
their critical habitat and makes sure that
the activity in that habitat that may affect
the whale consults federal scientists,”
Shavelson said.
He said the state has not done anything
proactive to protect the Cook Inlet beluga
whales.
“The statistics and science show that
the population has basically flatlined and
is not responding,” Shavelson said. “From
our position, it is a waste of time and state
dollars [to sue].”
Currently, the state is challenging
the listing and has 60 days to file if they
choose to move forward with the suit. The
department hopes NMFS will remove the
listing and wait a few years to make the
decision.
Vincent-Lang said the department
was also open to discuss with NMFS all
possible agreements before filing the suit.