Beluga Critical Habitat

Beluga whales. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Beluga whales. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

I attended a public hearing hosted National Marine Fisheries Service about a designated Critical Habitat Area for Cook Inlet Beluga whales. There will be another one tomorrow, Feb 12, 2010, at the Loussac Library in Anchorage beginning at 6PM.

On the surface you would be concerned about the belugas and thankful that the federal government is doing something to protect them. But the more you look into the issue the more confusing it gets. You get into a morass of Federal and State bureaucracies that jealously guard their piece of the power and money puzzle. Each manager, biologist, economist, and paper pusher manipulates and massages the meager scientific data to best benefit their share of the kingdom.

Basically, NMFS determined that Cook Inlet Belugas were endangered and evoked the Endangered Species Act to protect them. This put into place a series of acts that include the Critical Habitat Area. The more you look into it, the more you realize that these agencies really don’t even know that the whales are decreasing in population. There are anecdotal reports of large amounts of belugas in the 60s and earlier. The Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife apparently did a survey in the late seventies that found over 1000 belugas in Cook Inlet. Now they they feel that there are about 300 left.

The problem is that there is a big leak at the bottom of the Inlet. Belugas can easily come and go when they please. NMFS feels that this is a discreet population that does not intermingle with others. They base this assumption on a total of 18 tagged whales over a period of almost a decade. There were only 1-3 whales tagged each year and the tags only lasted a short time, never more than a few months and often much less. They were able to track these few whales for those short periods and during that time they didn’t leave the inlet. Based on that they feel this is a separate enough species to invoke the Endangered Species Act and declare pretty much the whole Northern Cook Inlet a Critical Habitat Area.

I could go on with examples like this but read the report for yourself here. You will notice that that it is riddled with things that MAY happen, negative things that COULD affect belugas, and “facts” that APPEAR to be true. They KNOW very little but are willing to take drastic action on that small amount of knowledge. The reason this action is so drastic is because belugas feed on salmon which spawn in almost every stream that empties into Cook Inlet. If you want to build a bridge across the stream, or fish, or develop anything in such a way that might affect these streams you may have to jump through some more federal hoops that could stop you in your tracks.

I guess the climate change fiasco has made me distrust the experts on these issues. The more I look into this beluga whale issue I wonder if something similar is happening. There is just so little science backing up the Critical Habitat Area proposal that it seems the cart is before the horse.

If you want to get involved you only have a couple weeks to say your piece. Here is the NOAA website about public comments on this issue. Read the grey column on the right and make sure to use the RIN number or your comment will not be read by anyone.

ADN recently had a report on this issue here with a good graph of the critical habitat area. The Critical Habitat Area is only in the inlet, but the illustration that got my attention at the public hearing showed all the feeder streams into the inlet which affect the critical habitat area. This includes pretty much the whole Matanuska-Susitna Borough.


I’ve done a little bit more reading. Sightings of Belugas near Yakatat on several occasions lead some to believe that these are belugas from Cook Inlet. If they are from Cook Inlet, that could explain the sudden depleted population…they are swimming away. I guess the question would be, why? And the other question would be, have they actually been doing this for years? Belugas are easy prey for killer whales when they are out in the Gulf of Alaska, so if they do swim away, chances are a lot of them do not survive.

On the other hand, some think the Yakatat Beluga is a separate distinct group like the ones in Cook Inlet and stay in the area year around.