By Jenny Neyman
The National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposal to designate 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales raises concerns that business as usual in Cook Inlet may become endangered along with the whales.
That’s a valid concern, and all the more reason to see the whales’ listing under the Endangered Species Act and this move toward increased habitat protections as an opportunity to encourage economic growth in the future, rather than a death knell for business as well as the whales. Scrutiny of the whales’ demise, and creating a plan based on that scrutiny, can encourage economic development by eliminating the risks to investment that the uncertain status of belugas currently creates.
Ideally, this situation would have been dealt with decades ago, avoiding the ramifications and limitations of an endangered species listing altogether. The belugas’ population has been known to be decreasing since the 1980s, and effective measures to reverse that trend have not happened.
This may well be one of the most expensive and difficult examples of “coulda-shoulda-woulda” the borough has yet faced. An easy way out of this situation is no longer possible. It’s time to face facts:
Cook Inlet belugas have significantly declined. A 1979 estimate pegged the whales’ population at 1,300. In 2008 their numbers were estimated at 375.
The limited measures taken to protect the whales and encourage their growth — primarily limiting hunting activities — have not been successful. Clearly, something beyond hunting is impeding their numbers. But the research and resources necessary to determine what that is have not been committed.
This issue is not going away. NMFS, not to mention all the environmental groups that have taken up this cause, are not simply going to let this go. Arguing that we shouldn’t be arguing about the whales — that they shouldn’t be listed as endangered — is counterproductive, not to mention detrimental to the whales as well as economic health of the region.
The whales have been designated as a genetically separate group. One suggested response to the endangered listing and critical habitat designation is to litigate that belugas are belugas, and since they are not endangered elsewhere in Alaska, they shouldn’t be listed as endangered in Cook Inlet. That’s a head-in-the-sand, unproductive way to address this issue.
The science says Cook Inlet belugas are distinct. Directing time, effort and resources toward discovering what is causing their decline and inhibiting their growth is the most productive way to address this situation. It’s also the best way to move forward and establish an environment that is healthy for whales, salmon and other creatures — including humans — as well as economic activities.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey issued a report Monday in advance of Tuesday’s assembly meeting that highlights sobering information from the belugas’ endangered listing. The following are some of the activities identified as having the potential to pose conservation threats to the whales and their habit: indigenous people’s use; recreation and tourism; military activities; tidal power development; commercial, recreational, personal-use and subsistence fishing; industrial activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants; continued oil and gas exploration, development and production; and development within and along upper Cook Inlet.
The subtext being that any and all of these activities — providing the economic lifeblood of the peninsula and beyond — may potentially be moved, modified or curtailed in an effort to protect the declining whale population.
As Mayor Carey points out, Cook Inlet supports an economy, along with whales.
“The challenge which now exists for the people of Alaska and the residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and those that live on the northern Cook Inlet around Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm is to promote the proper balance to achieve the restoration of the population of the Cook Inlet beluga whale and the cultural, social and economic needs for those who depend upon the Cook Inlet and its tributaries for their existence. The Cook Inlet is critical habitat for both humans and whales,” he said.
This is a particularly fractious time for a potential critical habitat designation and the controls and limitations that could come with it. With the borough and state’s overall financial picture, economic activities need to be supported, not hamstrung. The borough and other area municipalities are desperately trying to encourage further exploration for oil and gas and the continued operation of those industries, entice growth of the tourism industry, protect and grow fishing opportunities as well as help establish other economic opportunities in the inlet region.
Those industries are going to want a stable economic environment in order to continue current levels of activity, much less any expansion. They aren’t going to want to risk investment in an area with the substantial and myriad questions marks posed by the endangered listing and critical habitat designation.
So let’s answer the questions, once and for all. Let’s stop trying to ignore the fact that the health of the Cook Inlet watershed has been compromised and figure out what is causing the whales’ decline, what needs to be done to encourage their growth, and work toward making those changes.
It may be a painful process to undergo and may result in changes that are economically detrimental. But once a science-based plan for mitigating the beluga population crisis is in place, we can take a realistic look at the economic ramifications of that plan and work to mitigate those effects, as well.
Rather than shooting ourselves in the foot with continued avoidance, it’s time to bite the bullet, commit to finding a solution and working toward making Cook Inlet a healthy, stable environment for organisms and economics.
Jenny Neyman is the editor and publisher of the Redoubt Report in Soldotna.
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