Looking for answers on belugas

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of NOAA<br />The Kenai Peninsula Borough is deciding how best to spend federal grant money meant to study why Cook Inlet belugas are declining in area waters.

Photo courtesy of NOAA
The Kenai Peninsula Borough is deciding how best to spend federal grant money meant to study why Cook Inlet belugas are declining in area waters.

Seven hundred thousand dollars. It’s not a lot of money when it comes to figuring out why Cook Inlet belugas are disappearing, but it would be a lot of money to waste.

That’s the situation the Kenai Peninsula Borough finds itself in with $699,300 approved in the fiscal year 2010 federal budget. The borough is in the early stages of deciding how to put the money to use within the guidelines required, after being surprised to hear about the grant in the first place.

“I really feel this is a trust that’s been provided to us, and we’re going to do our best to uphold it,” said borough Mayor Dave Carey.

Carey said belugas have been a priority for his administration since day one – literally, since the whales were formally listed under the Endangered Species Act on Oct. 21, 2008, a day after he took office on Oct. 20.

Through an agreement with the Tri-Borough Commission – Carey and the mayors of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough – it was decided the Kenai borough would take the lead on the issue. While the state pursued a lawsuit to fight the endangered listing, “instead, we would be promoting the science to provide the information to go forward to mitigate the problems,” Carey said.

Unbeknownst to Carey at the time, federal funds to conduct research on Cook Inlet belugas were in the works. Carey said he discovered that two years ago the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council had worked with the borough to add beluga research to a list of federal funding priorities. In late January the borough got an e-mail from Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office listing three pages of projects receiving federal money. Among the list was the beluga whale research funding.

“When we got it, it was, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Not bad, but just, ‘What do we do with that?’” Carey said.

It became clear the answer wasn’t: “Whatever the borough wanted.” The money is to be administered to the borough by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. It must be used on projects taking place entirely within the boundaries of the borough. The borough can’t just give the money back to NMFS, and Carey doesn’t think it can simply be tagged onto an existing or future NMFS research project, although NMFS is already experienced at studying belugas.

As part of the endangered listing, NMFS compiled a list of beluga research that has already been done, identified areas still needing study and developed a conservation plan. Carey said NMFS gave the borough a list of 17 suggested research topics that it saw as important and fitting the criteria of the funding, with a price tag of $1.5 million. More funding may come in the future, but for now the borough only has the $700,000 to spend.

“They (NMFS and NOAA) expressed a lot of confidence that there’s plenty to do with the money within borough boundaries. They’re confident we’ll run out of money before questions and answers,” said John Mohorcich, manager of the Kenai River Center, which will administer the funds.

Much is generally known about the whales: Their biology – an average lifespan of 60 years, a size range from 12 to 14 and up to 20 feet in length and a weight of up to 3,300 pounds in males and 3,000 pounds in females. Their diet – mostly hooligan in the spring, salmon in the summer and deep-water fare like octopus, crab, shrimp and mussels in the fall and winter. Their range – primarily in rivers and bays in the upper inlet in the summer and fall, and farther offshore in midinlet waters in the winter. And their numbers – an estimated 1,300 in 1979, down to an estimated 375 in 2008.

But plenty more isn’t known. How sensitive are they to changes in their food supply and habitat? Why has their range changed over time? Where, specifically, do they go in the winter?

There are several theories about what may be causing their decline and hindering their recovery, including strandings, parasitism, disease, environmental change, subsistence hunts, poaching, fishing, pollution, vessel traffic, coastal development, noise, oil and gas activities, and scientific research. But scientists don’t know if some threats have more effect than others, or if it’s a combination of many impacts. In order to answer the big question – why are their numbers declining? – there are myriad little questions to answer first.

The borough’s $700,000 won’t go far in answering all that remains to be known, so the challenge is deciding how best to put it to use. Carey said he plans to form a 12- to 15-member committee to gather information about possible projects, submitted through a request-for-proposals process, and come up with system for reviewing and evaluating proposals. The committee will include scientists and people knowledgeable about the issue, he said. From there, a three-member panel, including Carey, Mohorcich and one other person yet to be named, will review the committee’s recommendations and select one project, with Carey having final say, to bring to the assembly for approval. Carey said he hopes to have a project identified and approved by the time the money becomes available, which will be October at the earliest.

In the meantime, the borough hopes to keep the public updated on the process, through public meetings held in Homer on May 28 and at the Kenai River Center on June 4, and through a Web site to be launched soon, www.cookinletbelugawhales.org.

Nobody from the central peninsula general public went to the Soldotna meeting, although a similar gathering held the week before in Homer drew attendants. But the Soldotna meeting was an opportunity for representatives of the borough and organizations interested in the fate of the belugas to put their heads together, compare notes and address concerns about use of the funds.

Among those concerns was whether the borough is an appropriate agency to get the money in the first place and whether it would be used to advance the existing body of knowledge about belugas, rather than reinvent the wheel.

“I just wanted to make sure we’re not going through a process where we’re completely starting from scratch. I felt that a lot of the hard work had been done in identifying what research needed to be done and data gaps need to be filled,” said Sue Saupe, director of science and research for Cook Inlet RCAC, which has worked with NMFS on belugas and related research projects.

“I hope this is forcing us to really, really focus in on those aspects of beluga life history that we know the least amount about. It’s only through better understanding the life history and behavior of these whales, as they live their life throughout Cook Inlet seas and over the years, can we then go on to mitigate our impacts.”

Ron Davis, executive director of the Tebughna Foundation, created by the Tyonek Native Corporation, said his organization and the village of Tyonek wants to see the money go to good research use, not to make pamphlets, videos, surveys or the like.

“They’d love to see research find out what the problem is, basically looking at recovery first and any science possible,” Davis said. “They haven’t done a subsistence hunt in three years. They would like to, but they’re not going to until they know what the problem is. … This is very important to Tebughna. ‘The beach people,’ that’s what they call themselves.”

Mohorcich said no projects are off the table yet, but he expects the money will be used to fund a new study.

“We’re going to prioritize and we’re going to get the most bang for our dollars,” he said. “We won’t spend it on peer review. I think you’ll probably see us move forward rather than re-study something,” he said.

Mohorcich acknowledged that it was a surprise for the borough, rather than NMFS, to get the money, but said the Kenai River Center is up to the task and has handled research grants before, sometimes up into the millions of dollars.

“So we know how to do that part. The beluga itself is just kind of a new topic to us, he said.

In the public meeting in Homer, an attendee raised a concern about the borough having conflicting interests when it comes to belugas. After all, industry contributes heavily to the Kenai Peninsula Borough in taxes, and beluga research could result in recommendations to change or curtail commercial activities in the inlet.

Carey said his administration has already had a teleconference with industry representatives to update them on the research project, and he said several petrochemical companies expressed an interest in helping fund research and possibly using inlet platforms for research, like for conducting sonar counts.

Carey said the research will be science-based and unbiased.

“The reality is we’ve been trusted with these funds and we are going to do that appropriately. The Kenai River Center handles many grants and permits. It is ideally suited to do this type of thing. This is the right place for it. I am very confident because I am going to be the person who makes the decision of what is presented to the assembly. I am absolutely going to do that appropriately,” Carey said.

“I was concerned that the money came to the borough instead of NMFS, but I feel like that they’re really trying to make it an open process and bring in the expertise of scientists,” Saupe said. “As long as I think that they are really continuing to target those research gaps that are research gaps, not specific to Kenai Peninsula Borough concerns, then I’ll feel happy that this process is working. I think they are trying to be open enough in their process that they alleviated a lot of my concerns.”

That’s the aim, Mohorcich said.

“We’re a busy group and we’ve got lots on our plates, as you know, so does everybody,” Mohorcich said at the June 4 meeting. “(But) it’s another exciting project that we get to deal with. My full intention is to give it 100 percent. I hope everybody looking in on us at the end of the day feels the same.”

Contact the writer
Posted by on Jun 11th, 2009 and filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed

Like us on Facebook