In January, Gov. Sarah Palin announced the state would challenge the listing of the Cook Inlet population of beluga whales under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The state has expressed concern about population models, and objects to decisions based on "extremely small likelihoods of extinction over extended timeline."
In fact, the listing of beluga whales was supported by the best available science, strong consensus among marine mammal scientists, and recommendations by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.
Over the last 30 years, the population has declined by 70 percent. The National Marine Fisheries Service has conducted systematic aerial population estimates of belugas in Cook Inlet since 1994 (653 whales) through 2008 (375 whales). The decline was likely due to an unregulated subsistence harvest during the mid-1990s.
In 1999 the federal government designated this population depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and began regulating the harvest in anticipation that the population would rebound by 2-6 percent per year. Unfortunately, the beluga population has failed to rebound as anticipated.
A recent population risk assessment by the National Marine Fisheries Service indicates an 80 percent probability of population decline, a 54 percent probability that the population will decline below 200 whales in 50 years, and a 26 percent risk of extinction within 100 years. These predictions by federal scientists represent alarmingly high likelihood of impending extinction for this population of beluga whales.
Several factors put these whales at risk. Reproductively mature females number less than 150 and reproductive rates are low. Cook Inlet belugas are geographically and genetically isolated. If the population is lost, it is unlikely to re-colonize Cook Inlet. This small population concentrates at certain locations during the course of a year, so it is vulnerable to any random catastrophic event such as mass strandings.
For 35 years the ESA has been the most significant conservation tool for preventing the extinction of species in the United States. When species are listed, and after careful examination and consideration of economic factors, critical habitat must also be designated. In essence the ESA is a safety net for maintaining all the biological parts of our nation’s lands and waters which, ultimately, people also depend on for food, jobs and our quality of life.
Although ESA listings often conjure up visions of controversy, the risks of a development project being stopped by an ESA listing are rare. The vast majority of consultations are resolved informally with no impact determinations.
For example, Fish & Wildlife Service found that between 1998 and 2000, of more than 300,000 consultations, only 420 (one-tenth of one percent) resulted in jeopardy opinions. And even projects with jeopardy opinions can usually be modified and allowed to proceed.
In Alaska for example, the oil and gas industry has operated successfully in the Arctic despite the fact that both Steller’s and spectacled eiders are listed as threatened and the bowhead whale is listed as endangered. And the Bering Sea, with endangered sea lions, is still home to the largest marine fishery in the world.
In summary the ESA is a good law, it rarely stops development and it is working in Alaska. The analysis supporting the listing of the Cook Inlet beluga was scientifically sound and comprehensive. The Cook Inlet beluga population is precariously small and vulnerable. The State of Alaska’s pending lawsuit will waste time and resources better spent cooperating on recovery efforts.
John Schoen is the senior scientist at Audubon Alaska in Anchorage. He is a wildlife biologist with more than 30 years of Alaska experience. Craig Matkin is co-director of North Gulf Oceanic Society in Homer. He is a whale biologist with more than 30 years of Alaska experience.
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