Saturday, January 09, 2010

Understanding belugas and their territory

Unlike Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey said he has no plan so far to fight proposed rules designating 3,000 miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for beluga whales.
A year ago, Carey met with Mayors Mark Begich and Curt Menard after the October 2008 listing of endangered species. At that point, they made a decision they would not support state action against the designation. The Sarah Palin Administration had set forth claims there was not sufficient evidence that beluga whales are endangered.
Carey, Begich and Menard didn't want to side with that argument.
"We wanted to give input, but we didn't want to sue the federal government," Carey said.
After the NMFS's proposal, another tri-borough meeting was held, this time with new Mat-Su Borough Mayor Tallis Colberg, Sullivan and Carey. This time, they came up with two decisions:
• The Kenai Peninsula Borough would be the lead borough on this issue since it has the most land and waterways involved.
• They needed to ask for an 60-day extension in order to be clear on what the pending legislation will entail.
NMFS issued its report in mid November, and Carey said he felt the group needed more time to look through it.
"It's a significant document," he said.
On Jan. 14, a NOAA official will explain the process at a borough meeting.
As for the listing and critical habitat designations, Carey believes there is a need for the public to be brought onboard in order to understand what's ahead.
"I believe there has to be a partnership; there is the need for jobs and to protect the species," Carey said. "Our No. 1 goal has to be protecting the whale. Until I have answers as to how they will bring in the different factors, I am not inclined to speak about opposing anything."
The listing and proposed critical habitat has led to opposition by Gov. Sean Parnell, concerns on how the military traffic could be hampered from the Port of Anchorage by Sens. Begich and Lisa Murkowski, and Mayor Sullivan's concern about the ruling's economic impact.
The KPB, however, includes the oil and gas developments in Cook Inlet. That means it will be important to understand how future development would be handled well before the rules go into effect, Carey said.
"We need to know what additional permits or things need to be done. I want to know how they will make their decisions," he said. "Can we receive more information on how they will verify information used in their decision on what poses a threat?"
The Nov. 17 report lists seven wastewater treatment plants either draining into the Inlet, or through tributaries.
The mayor also is proposing to the KPB Assembly to hire borough attorney Steve Silver on the borough's behalf. Silver already lobbies in Washington D.C., and could monitor legislation that deals with endangered species listing.
As required by federal legislation, once a listing is made, a Preparatory Assessment for the Critical Habitat Designation of Cook Inlet Beluga Whales was drafted Nov. 17. The point is to "identify, compile, characterize and synthesize economic data, capital investment, regional impacts and associated information as related to development activities in and around Cook Inlet," that relate to Cook Inlet beluga's critical habitat.
Activities that pose potential threats
The final listing identifies activities with the potential to pose conservation threats to the Cook Inlet beluga whale and its habitat:
• Development within and along upper Cook Inlet;
• Continued oil and gas exploration, development, and production;
• Industrial activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants (e.g., petroleum, seafood-processing waste, ship ballast, affluent from municipal wastewater treatment systems, and runoff from urban, mining and agricultural areas);
• Tidal power development;
• Commercial, recreational, personal use and subsistence fishing;
• Military activities;
• Indigenous people's use:
• Recreation and tourism;
• Disease or predation;
• Inadequate existing regulatory mechanisms (at present, regulations cover the short-term subsistence harvest);
• Stranding along mudflats in upper Cook Inlet, both individually and en masse.

The analysis examines most of the above activities to determine how they may be modified to mitigate, compensate for, or avoid threats to the Cook Inlet beluga whale and its habitat, Carey noted in his report to the assembly.
"The challenge which now exists for the people of Alaska and the residents of the Kenai Peninsula Borough 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," Carey wrote in his report. "The Cook Inlet is critical habitat for both humans and whales."

Beluga study to be out this year
Four Cook Inlet beluga whales died in 2009 as stranding victims in Knik and Turnagain Arm areas and a new report due out this year could shed light on what happened to cause the strandings.
National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Barbara Mahoney said each necropsy done after a beluga mortality studies numerous factors, with the findings to be published in the report.
Studying the dead beluga will give only a partial snap shot, Mahoney said. "It's all we have, but it's a good picture, I think. If we see a lot of bacteria that say, causes stomach ulcers, that and other information will provide a good guide book to us as managers," Mahoney said.
Skin is tested for genetics, teeth for aging, and the reproductive tracks for understanding birth rates. When the sample is captured fresh, it can be tested for contaminants and to see if bacteria is present, indicating an illness that caused the stranding and death, Mahoney said.
"The report should be fairly complete in letting us know the results of what we are finding," Mahoney said.
The strandings last year occurred June 7 in north Turnagain Arm, Sept 23 near Anchorage, Oct. 8 in Knik Arm and Oct. 15 at Eagle Bay.
The endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population is not showing recovery, according to NOAA Fisheries Service's latest annual survey and estimate. Scientists conducted aerial surveys in early June during fish migrations, when belugas concentrate near river mouths. Between June 2 and June 9, they flew over Cook Inlet counting the beluga whales while also taking photographs and video.
Scientists then examined the images to provide a more accurate estimate of the beluga whale population in Cook Inlet this year — 321 beluga whales. For both 2007 and 2008, the estimate was 375 whales.

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