Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 8:29 PM on Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Industry, environmentalists clash over beluga whale

By Sean Manget

ANCHORAGE — Economic and environmental concerns clashed at a public hearing over the pending designation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of Cook Inlet as a critical habitat for beluga whales.

The Endangered Species Act requires the administration's National Marine Fisheries Service to make such a designation when a species is classified as endangered or threatened. The Cook Inlet beluga whale was listed as an endangered species in October 2008.

The group published a proposal to designate the area a critical habitat Dec. 2, 2009, arguing that it contained physical and biological features essential to the preservation of the species.

If passed as is, the proposal would designate the portion of Cook Inlet north of a line from the mouth of Threemile Creek to Point Possession as essential to the survival of the whale, and the area south of that line as an area potentially requiring special consideration, but not necessarily critical.

The fisheries service would only need to OK projects developed or funded by the federal government, meaning businesses still could steer boats through the inlet unabated so long as they do not intentionally harass or hurt the whales. Private boaters are afforded the same right.

The Feb. 12 hearing was a call for all interested parties, be they private citizens, corporate officials or city representatives, to testify openly about the proposed designation.

For freight companies that ship products in and out of Anchorage via the inlet, the designation may lead to higher costs as ships are outfitted with expensive new equipment to ensure the safety of beluga whales, said some industry representatives.

George Lowery, Alaska director for Totem Ocean Trailer Express, a locally based freight company operating a fleet of cargo ships, said that although the proposal would generally only affect federally funded development projects, he fears the federal government may "tighten the screws" as time passes.

Mandated speed restrictions for ships on the water could result in additional fuel usage, and additional observers to watch for whales in the area may need to be deployed to each vessel, Lowery said. In all, he argued, such enhancements could cost an additional $500,000 per ship per year.

Totem may be forced to relocate outside of Anchorage should the proposal pass, Lowery said, and he suggested that ship corridors leading to and from the Port of Anchorage be exempted from the designation.

The inlet serves as the passageway through which 85 percent of imported goods end up in Alaska, said City Manager George Vakalis.

He worries that imports may fall as freight companies find their passage into the Port of Anchorage inhibited by the federal government.

Vakalis believes the designation's complexity may alarm the public, especially given the distinction between the two areas within the inlet.

"The port is already fully engaged in protecting the beluga whale," said Port of Anchorage Director Bill Sheffield.

Sheffield argued that the port is already in compliance with ESA regulations, and that further protection for the whales is unnecessary. He echoed Vikalis's sentiment regarding the volume of imports entering Alaska via the inlet, arguing that groceries and building materials arrive en masse at the port on a regular basis.

Contrary to what many municipal and city officials claimed at the hearing, the economic impact would amount to only $187,000 to $571,000 being deducted from the state's economy, said Mandy Migura, a biologist with the administration.

Karla Dutton, Alaska program director with the Defenders of Wildlife organization, said she thinks the proposal is clear and understandable, and that the impact on the state's economy would be minimal.

She said that out of thousands of projects across the nation, only 1 percent were affected when built within critical habitat areas.

Ronald Stanek, a 30-year resident of Anchorage and commercial fisherman who has fished in the inlet since 1985, said he fully supports the proposal, and believes the critical habitat area should be expanded to many of the river mouths where fish species, such as the longfin smelt, tend to congregate.

"I think that people shouldn't be so fearful of the designation because the goal here is for recovery, and for lifting the restrictions that may be put in place right now," Stanek said.

Approximately 300 beluga whales are living in the inlet today, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The fisheries service will accept comments from the public, either during public hearings or in writing, until March 3. People interested in commenting can visit www.regulations.gov.

The following month, the service will review the public comments. The final decision as to precisely which areas of the inlet are to be given the designation will be issued in October, at which point the designation will be in effect