• Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Team will not permit Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists to continue role on the panel
By Naomi Klouda
Can Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists do impartial work on a team mandated to come up with a recovery plan for the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale?
Apparently not without representing the state’s interest or positions, said James Balsiger, the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Balsiger received letters from the team leader of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Team, Tamara McGuire, and from the Marine Mammal Commission Executive Director, Timothy Ragen. Both letters urged him to dismiss the state’s scientists from the team. Bob Small, a general marine mammal expert with ADFG, and Mark Willette, a Cook Inlet fisheries biology manager, were then removed from the team by Balsiger in a letter to ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell April 25.
“We find that the ADFG External Review Policy, which states that ‘once a department position or policy is established, employees must present or adhere to such a policy when representing ADFG whether directly or through its affiliations or use of its resources’ does not conform to the TOR (Terms of Reference) for the CIBRT,” Balsiger wrote. “Due to this unfortunate circumstance we must regretfully remove the ADFG scientists from the Science Panel…”
Commissioner Campbell did not respond directly to media questions. Instead, Doug Vincent-Lang, who represents the state on the stakeholder panel, spoke on the department’s behalf. “We’re disappointed. This process doesn’t value our collective wisdom in our many sub-specialities of expertise,” he said.
McGuire outlined the problem on behalf of the science panel, which made a unanimous request to remove Small and Willette.
“It has come to our attention that some members of the science panel are representing policy position and are not serving as independent scientists. This position is contrary to (1) the development of a science-based recovery plan and (2) the CIBRT Terms of Reference (TOR).
“The Endangered Species Act mandates that recovery plans be written based on the ‘best science.’ Best science can only be obtained by inquiry and frank discussions that are driven by the scientific method, not by policy advocacy,” McGuire wrote. “Scientific integrity and the necessity for scientists to be able to work independently of politics has been a topic of concern for scientists, scientific organizations and for public agencies.”
The matter was brought to light by Small and Willette themselves, while attending a Dec. 8-10 science panel meeting in Seattle. “Apparently they have been instructed to represent and advocate for specific positions of the State of Alaska, concerning Cook Inlet beluga whales,” which contradicts the TOR.
The Marine Mammal Commission’s Ragen had complained “the very essence of the scientific process is that it seeks to discover and understand the world as it is, not as we would like, choose, or dictate it to be.
So far, there has been no decision on replacing the now-removed state biologists, said NOAA’s deputy administrator, Doug Mecum. The state can still provide input as a member of the public, he said.
In light of federal-state conflicts over Alaska resource development matters and endangered species, which Gov. Sean Parnell has launched lawsuits to fight, this could be viewed as a similar problem. But Mecum said he doesn’t believe that is the case.
“There is a conflict in the state policy on how employees participate in external review panels, not on a federal-state level,” Mecum said. “I fully respect the department’s authority to direct how their employees represent themselves, whether on the Board of Fish or for the National Marine Fisheries Council.”
The CIBRT Science Panel is to write a draft report that maps a course for beluga recovery, but is a while away from being completed. A stakeholder panel also on the CIBRT includes Nancy Lord of Homer, representing Cook InletKeeper, and Mayor Dave Carey, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, as well as oil industry representatives, commercial and subsistence fishing interests and conservation groups like Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife.
The ADFG’s Doug Vincent-Lang, commenting on behalf of the department, said the state is disappointed but doesn’t plan to launch a lawsuit against NMFS.
“We’re disappointed over the decision to remove our two scientists from the panel. In removing them, they chose not to incorporate the body of knowledge from the department. But we were being asked to agree to TOR that in effort precluded them from discussing activities with other biologists in the department, in terms of the science panel. That’s unacceptable to us,” Vincent-Lang said.
Fish and Game employs numerous experts in specialities, subsistence, sport, commercial and marine biologists.
“They needed to be able to communicate open and freely in terms of gathering from the collective wisdom and not be treated as an independent person,” he said.
The state will be looking for an opportunity to be represented through the stakeholders’ public testimony process. Once a draft report is out, there will be a period of public comments. At that stage, ADFG will be involved, Vincent-Lang added. They also will be able to attend the science panel meetings as observers but not participants, since the science panel recently was opened to public attendance.
“It’s much better to be sitting at the table bringing collective wisdom into those discussions. We’re glad they’ve opened those meetings to the public – that ‘s a good step. But not sitting at the table will hamper our ability to contribute to a sound recovery plan,” Vincent-Lang said.
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