Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sullivan, Young ask state to fund beluga research

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young announced today they will ask the state for more than $1 million dollars to fund beluga whale research in light of a federal critical habitat proposal.

The proposal for more research comes as the federal government is considering labeling Cook Inlet as a critical habitat for beluga whales.

But there's disagreement on whether the feds need more research before they make a decision.

Mayor Sullivan can give you plenty of reasons why he thinks a proposed beluga critical habitat in cook inlet is a bad idea.

"The Port expansion, noise from the airport, both the float planes, Merrill Field and the international airport," Sullivan said.

"A potential Knik Arm crossing, oil and gas development in the inlet," he continued.

Sullivan says the future of all these things could be put in jeopardy if the federal government's proposal comes true-- potentially crippling activity in Cook Inlet.

"Literally the impact when you consider energy projects lost and shipping opportunities, that sort of stuff, really it ends up being hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.

Sullivan joined Rep. Don Young Tuesday saying that with so much at stake, the special designation for Cook Inlet belugas shouldn't happen because they question the research the feds used to propose the critical habitat option.

"I personally don't believe this is a different species of a beluga whale than what's in Kotzebue, which we kill and eat many times up there by the Alaska Natives. I don't think there's a bit of difference, but we have no science to offset that," Young said.

Sullivan says if Alaska gathered its own research, there would be a clearer picture of beluga behavior.

"Are they indeed isolated strictly to Cook Inlet, if there was activity and they move somewhere else, does that mean the decimation of the population? Who knows? Bottom line is we need more information,
" Sullivan said.

Others say the research that's already available is just fine.

"National Marine Fisheries Service is an excellent agency and they use the best available science, technologies and methods that's available, so we have full confidence that they have done the research that needs to be done," said Toby Smith with the Alaska Center for the Environment.

As far as any impact on industry in Cook Inlet, environmental groups say that shouldn't be a concern.

"In this particular case, and in any case, we have no interest in slowing down industry, stopping industry, that's not the intent here at all. The idea is to understand what's going on with the beluga whale and the eco-system it thrives in, and come up with a plan for recovery," Smith said.

Besides, they say, historically, industry interference doesn't happen.

"Statistics show that an incredibly small percentage of endangered species listings across the country have had an actual impact on industry, and there's no reason that that has to be any different here," Smith said.

With a public comment period to the federal government now open, the decision on what to do still looms overhead with plenty of disagreement to go around.

Sullivan says at Rep. Young's request, he wants to ask the State of Alaska to fund a research study on Cook Inlet beluga whales.

There is no word on how much he'll be asking for but he says it will be in the range of millions of dollars.

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