Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 8:02 PM on Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Residents: Proposal not enough for belugas


Speakers at a public hearing held last Thursday at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center criticized a proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska to designate portions of Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay critical habitat for the beluga whale for not going far enough.


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Miranda Weiss and her daughter, Cecily Shavelson.

In contrast to public officials like Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who said NMFS lacks a full understanding of where critical habitat is located, many Homer speakers supported the designation of critical habitat — but said it should go further.

"Extend the critical habitat areas further up the rivers. Right now you just go to the mouth of the rivers," said David Martin, a 39-year commercial fishermen.

Of 19 speakers at last week's hearing, the majority spoke in favor of protecting Cook Inlet beluga whales through critical habitat or by listing the whales as an endangered species. Fishermen, mothers, writers and environmental activists testified about the need to protect beluga whales. Only one citizen spoke against the proposal, former Homer City Council member Doug Stark, who cautioned against the impact on development if the proposal should stand.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NMFS in October 2008 listed the Cook Inlet beluga whale as an endangered species.

According to NMFS research, the Cook Inlet beluga whale is a genetically distinct subspecies that declined by 47 percent between 1994 and 1998, largely due to unsustainable subsistence harvesting. In 1999, NMFS and Alaska Native whale hunters developed harvest restrictions, with only five whales taken from 1999 and 2008. Beluga whales did not recover as anticipated. NMFS population studies show a trend of a 1.5 percent annual decline from 1999 to 2009.

The beluga whale population has generally moved from middle Cook Inlet to upper Cook Inlet, Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm near Anchorage. The proposed rule designates two critical habitat areas, one in upper Cook Inlet north of Point Possession near Turnagain Arm, and another area south to below Kalgin Island, on the west side to Kamishak Bay and in Kachemak Bay.

NMFS looked at various factors in designating beluga whale critical habitat, such as shallow water depths; presence of primary prey species, including salmon, hooligan, cod, walleye pollock and yellowfin sole; passage between critical habitat areas; absence of toxins; and absence of high noise levels.

In a presentation before the hearing, NMFS marine biologist Mandy Migura explained the implications of a critical habitat designation. She said it would have no effect on commercial and sport fishermen, state and local governments, industry or private landowners unless activities came under a federal "nexus" — that is, if a project or action is funded, authorized or carried out by a federal agency.

In that event, federal agencies taking or approving action are required to consult with NMFS about potential impacts on beluga whale critical habitat. Of 17,052 such consultations done by NMFS, 17,010 did not adversely modify a critical habitat, Migura said.

NMFS can exempt military areas from critical habitat. Citing its importance as a strategic military port, Port of Anchorage officials have asked for an exemption; that request is still under consideration. NMFS exempted areas within the U.S. Army's Eagle River Flats firing range. Existing human made structures also would be exempted, Migura said.

NMFS concluded the economic impact of a critical habitat designation would be minimal, between $187,000 and $571,000. No areas would be excluded for economic reasons, Migura said. Migura pointed out that development has coexisted with endangered species in Alaska since 1970 for species like the blue whale, bowhead whale, fin whale, humpback whale, North Pacific right whale, sei whale, sperm whale and Steller sea lion.

Much of the testimony came from longtime lower Cook Inlet fishermen. They said beluga whales had been common in Kachemak Bay or lower Cook Inlet in the 1970s and 1980s, but disappeared, possibly through predation by orca whales.

Ken Castner, a commercial fisherman since 1978, said when he started fishing on the west side of Cook Inlet, belugas were ubiquitous.

"The center of Cook Inlet — it was like white caps there were so many belugas," Castner said.

Beaver Nelson, a commercial fisherman since 1965, recalled seeing belugas at the head of Kachemak Bay in the mid 1980s when he would go duck hunting. He also saw orcas, and said he thought predation by killer whales caused belugas to disappear from the bay.

"My feeling is that belugas are just a candy bar for orcas," Nelson said.

Another longtime fisherman, Doug Blossom, who moved to Clam Gulch in 1948, also said he saw belugas go away in the 1980s. That should affect habitat designation, he said.

"It looks to me like if you're going to have it, it should be where the belugas are, not where they aren't anymore," Blossom said.

Dave Aplin, a Homer resident who used to live on Kauai, Hawaii, spoke against that idea. Habitat should include areas where whales might come back. He cited the recovery of the endangered ne'ne goose in Hawaii. The ne'ne was reintroduced in its original mountain habitat and still declined, and then wildlife managers tried introducing the ne'ne in lower elevations.

"When they did that at Kauai, the population took off. They made some assumptions about what habitat should be," Aplin said.

NMFS should apply the precautionary principle, the idea of considering worst case scenarios so at to avoid them.

"Employ that precautionary principle of not where they're in trouble, but where they need to go," Aplin said.

Stark looked at the issue from its possible effect on the economy.

"I'm concerned that the proposed designation will cause massive problems for any development proposal," he said. "I suggest the proposal be reviewed or drastically reduced or eliminated."

Stark said the beluga whale population had increased 4 percent since 2005, a claim also made by the Resource Development Council. NMFS population assessments show the beluga whale population increased from 278 in 2005 to 375 in 2008, but then declined in 321 in 2009. The trend has been a 1.5 percent rate of decline, NMFS said.

Homer writer Miranda Weiss, author of "Tide, Feather, Snow," testified holding her newborn daughter, Cecily.

"I really want my daughter to have the experience of seeing belugas," Weiss said. "I want her to experience awe. I don't want her to come to me in 10 or 15 years and say, 'What did you do about the belugas?' I don't want to say to her 'I did nothing.'"

Hearings will be held today in Wasilla and on Saturday in Anchorage. Written comments can be submitted until March 3. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.

Comments, which should be identified by "RIN 0648-AX50," may be sent to Kaja Brix, Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources, Alaska Region, NMFS, ATTN: Ellen Sebastian. Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal Web site at www.regulations.gov. Mail comments to P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668.

Comments also may be faxed to (907) 586-7557 or hand-delivered to the Federal Building: 709 W. 9th St., Room 420A, Juneau.

More information about Cook Inlet beluga whales can be found at alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/protectedresources/whales/beluga.htm. The proposed rule for critical habitat areas is at alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/prules/74fr63080.pdf.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong.@homernews.com.