“Even now if you go up in October, you will see orcas up there hunting seal. My feeling is, belugas are a candy bar for orcas.”
— Beaver Nelson
• Most testimony from the Peninsula favors habitat restrictions
By Naomi Klouda
The testimony on whether or not to designate most of Cook Inlet as beluga habitat is now in, with some 91,668 responses to the public comment period that ended March 3.
The comments will be available to the public shortly at the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site, said spokesperson Sheela McLean. It is important to note that the number of responses didn’t calculate how many made repeat testimony. However, the numbers from organizations were noted, with Sierra Club accounting for 43,339 responses. The Natural Resource Development Council — countering the idea of designating Cook Inlet as critical habitat — weighed in with 39,939 responses.
NMFS counted 10 responses from North Star Terminal and Stevedore Co., LLC, which operates the Port of Anchorage, and 219 from post card mailings. They also received 13 “unknown” letters and received 7,500 from a signature petition.
The NMFS is expecting to issue its decision sometime in October, McLean said.
Here is a sampling of commentary that came from residents in Homer and/or the Kenai Peninsula:
Roland Maw of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association:
“It became apparent to us as an industry that belugas were declining 15 or more years ago. NMFS came to us as a group, and to the set net group, and asked us if we would have some observers on board our vessels and you have the results of that. We had observers to the tune of about 9,000 hours on our vessels and beaches. There were no sightings, no entanglements and certainly no deaths. We have been trying to be proactive, even though our government hasn’t been … This is a difficult problem to work through but we’ll get through it and we’ll be OK.”
Ken Tarbox: I worked from 1980 to 2000 for Fish and Game. In that capacity, I flew over Cook Inlet and observed whales. I support the critical habitat designation identified, with a couple of exceptions. One, it is not far enough up the Susitna River. The whales would go much further up the Susitna River than what is designated. Two is the Kenai River. Even recently, since 2000, I’ve seen whales moving two to three miles up from the bridge. I assure you the lower Kenai is still used by belugas. I’ve seen as many as 30 in there in the spring and in the fall. Where we are not seeing them is during the July period when we historically used to see them.”
Harold Shepherd, director Center for Water Advocacy
I am here to testify in support of proposed designation of critical habitat for beluga on behalf of our members, which includes native villages and tribal governments in Alaska including the Marine Mammal Council and the Eklutna, Kenaitze, Chickaloon, Ninilchik, Seldovia and Tyonek tribes… Many tribal organizations can be of significant assistance in implementation and support in helping keep the belugas from jeopardy.
Beaver Nelson: “I have lived here since 1965. As a commercial fisherman I’ve spent a lot of time in Kachemak Bay and have observed belugas. Up until mid 1980’s there was a group of belugas that would come in every fall. All through October they appeared to feed on smelt (little wiggling clouds you could see in the grass). There would be 40-50 belugas in that area steadily. In mid to late 1980’s the belugas began to disappear. They were gone in a two to three year period to where there just weren’t belugas there anymore. You very rarely saw orcas back then, but in the late 1980’s the orcas became way more common. Even now if you go up in October you will see orcas up there hunting seal. My feeling is belugas are a candy bar for orca. They found a good food source and drove the belugas out of there. It is a risky venture for a beluga to move through there to run a gauntlet of orcas which seem to be increasing in abundance.
George Matz: I live in the Fish Creek area and am speaking for myself. I support the critical habitat designation, especially in Kachemak Bay. I would love to see the belugas back in the area and it won’t happen until they recover. I went on the website and looked at information you had. I was impressed that it was so thorough and complete. It sets a high standard for those opposing the critical habitat. I would like to mention the emphasis on critical habitat has been more on the geographic location and I think more emphasis needs to be there on the biological attributes. The primary prey species is brought up but maybe there needs to be more emphasis on just how many salmon and other prey species there are for the whale. Circumstantial evidence shows that when there wasn’t a rebound of belugas, there was also a lack of fish.”
Whitney Lowe: “I am a resident of Homer and am in support of the critical habitat designation. I grew up in Georgia and the opportunity to see marine mammals was a very special occasion. The beluga carries a particular mystique. The first one I ever saw was in an aquarium. I count myself lucky to have seen it, even if it was in an aquarium. After moving to Alaska, I was driving from Anchorage to Homer and my wife and I saw a pod of belugas. We pulled over and watched for an hour and a half and that is indelibly etched in my memory. There are so few places left in the world to see this kind of unique wildlife. It really is up to us to support the beluga listing with the critical habitat designation.”
Elise Wolf, board member of the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society.
“The science is sound. It shows belugas confine to essential habitat areas, without which they will go extinct. The designation proposed habitat areas are irreplaceable. The cultural and social importance of whales has not been valued in terms of dollars but, was it to be, the overall value would be extremely high. The proposal would benefit by having such an analysis completed…”
Maurice Kilcher: I am in support of the critical habitat designation. I heard someone talking in the store today about shutting down the inlet for the belugas. By creating critical habitat we are not just creating one for the belugas but for ourselves as well and for the fish we have depended on all our lives. I have seen a lot of changes; a lot of species have disappeared. Whatever we can do to keep it cleaner and beautiful for our children so they don’t have to go to SeaWorld to see a beluga.
Doug Blossom: “We moved to Kenai in 1948, and have had a long history of commercial fishing in the inlet. As I look at the critical habitat designation, it looks like the charts should show where the belugas are, not where they aren’t any more. We used to see hundreds of belugas in the 1950’s… Along came statehood and we began to ‘manage’ the salmon runs. But, in the 1980’s the belugas disappeared. I haven’t seen beluga in the Clam Gulch area since then. I don’t see that the critical habitat designation correlates to the belugas we see. I believe that something else has been the demise of the beluga. I believe, as does Beaver Nelson, that when the sea lion disappeared so did the beluga. I think you should look at some of this and not so much at the critical habitat.”
Mike O’Meara: I live 14 miles northwest of Homer. I haven’t been here as long as some folks, only 42 years. That was long enough for me to watch much of the decline of this species. In my early days I lived in Anchorage and it was a common sight to see people parked on highway watching whales. It was something people looked forward to. It is hard to see that any more. I am here tonight primarily to thank you for being here and for moving ahead after such a long period of time.”
Elizabeth Neumann of Anchor Point: “I’m just going to speak from the heart. The first time I saw a beluga was in an aquarium in New York City before I knew I was coming to Alaska. It was like a foreshadowing of my life here. I’ve been here for 20 years now and I used to see the belugas on Turnagain Arm quite often. I think we are all linked together and if there is a failure of one animal in the ecosystem it affects all of us. I support the critical habitat area.”
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