By Jenny Neyman
Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The Cook Inlet region is home to the largest congregation of Alaska’s population and supports the many and myriad economic uses that population has developed, and would like to develop, in and around the waterway — shipping, tourism, oil and gas industry activity, transportation, mineral extraction, discharge of effluents, fishing and more.
The inlet also is home to a population of beluga whales that has dwindled to the point of being listed under the Endangered Species Act in October 2008 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The endangered listing and subsequent designation of critical habitat encompassing much of Cook Inlet puts in place a level of protection for the whales, so that activity in the inlet won’t harm the existing population or inhibit their recovery.
At the same time, there’s debate over whether that protection is necessary, and concern that it might restrict, if not cripple, economic activity in the inlet. As public meetings are held, a federal comment period is open and the state decides whether it will sue to block the endangered listing and critical habitat designation, that’s the central question stirring up debate — can the whales be saved without endangering the economy?
Platform A in Cook Inlet, photo courtesy of XTO Energy
No one knows for sure how many belugas used to be in Cook Inlet, but it’s clear that there are a lot less now than there used to be. Based on limited surveys done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, anecdotal references and traditional knowledge from Native beluga hunters, NMFS estimates there were 1,000 to 1,300 belugas in the 1970s. By the time NMFS began comprehensive, systematic aerial surveys for belugas throughout the inlet in 1993, the number was estimated at 653. From just 1994 to 1998 the population decreased by about 50 percent to 347 whales.
NMFS attributes the rapid decline to an increase in Native beluga hunting.
“There has been traditional harvest by subsistence users of Cool Inlet belugas for as long back as anybody cares to go,” said Brad Smith, a field office supervisor for the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act with NMFS, at a presentation Thursday in Kenai.
Before the 1990s, subsistence hunters took a few belugas a year. But during the 1980s and 1990s, more people moved to Southcentral from Native villages in outlying Alaska and took up beluga harvest, Smith said.
“I think they gradually became aware that there were beluga whales available. The harvest levels increased drastically by the early ’90s,” he said.
Subsistence harvest of inlet belugas was regulated in 1998, and just five whales were taken between 1999 and 2008. In 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to have the whales listed as endangered, but at the time NMFS did not do so because it believed the whale population would rebound at a rate of 2 percent to 6 percent a year once the pressure of hunting was relieved.
That hasn’t happened. The current NMFS analysis is that there’s only a 5 percent probability that the whales’ population is growing at a rate of above 2 percent per year, and a 62 percent or more probability that the population will decline further.
“We expected during that time to see an uptick and see a recovery in the numbers. Unfortunately, we did not,” Smith said. “Subsequent to that we received an additional petition recommending listing under the Endangered Species Act.”
NMFS designed various models to predict the likelihood of inlet beluga whale extinction. They include various factors and variables, such as an updated 2008 population estimate; whales’ biological characteristics — lifespan, age of reproductive maturity, etc.; and possible causes of mortality — predation, mostly by killer whales, and strandings or other unusual mortality events. The scenario NMFS considers to be the most realistic model accounts for an average of one mortality a year due to predation and a 5 percent annual chance of an unusual mortality event (like strandings, ice entrapment or ship strikes) that kills 20 percent of the population. That model predicts a 1 percent chance of extinction in 50 years, 26 percent probability of extinction in 100 years, 70 percent probability of extinction in 300 years and 80 percent probability that the population is declining.
NMFS listed the whales as endangered in October 2008. In December 2010 about 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet were designated as critical habitat for the belugas. The comment period on the proposed critical habitat has recently been extended to March 3.