Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Gets Critical Habitat


     WASHINGTON (CN) - After a year and half of public hearings, lawsuits and over 135,000 comments, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated 3,013 square miles of marine habitat in Alaska's Cook Inlet as critical to the survival of the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale.
     The designation was made in the face of the state of Alaska's challenge to the Endangered Species Act listing status of the beluga, and specifically excludes the rapidly expanding Port of Anchorage and most military land, "in consideration" of national security.
     When the agency listed the beluga as endangered in October, 2008, it estimated that there were only 375 Cook Inlet belugas left, a nearly 80 percent decline since the early 1980s. The agency also estimated that there was a 26 percent chance they would become extinct in the next 100 years.
     NOAA says the whales have been endangered by severe stranding events; continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet; discharge of industrial and municipal pollutants; predation by killer whales; losses of available prey to the fishing industry; and destruction of prey habitat.
     Once critical habitat is designated, Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to ensure that they do not fund, authorize or carry out any actions that would destroy or adversely affect the habit.
     The agency maintains that changes to current land or water use will be minimal because most of the designated habitat is already under some federal or state regulation limiting destruction or modification of habitat under a conservation plan adopted for the beluga before it was listed under the act.
     Construction, dredging and dumping in the inlet are already regulated to prevent harm to the beluga, and the critical habitat designation adds to these protections: limitations on dams, impoundments and fishing on streams that host the whale's preferred diet of salmon.
     Alaska Governor Sean Parnell issued a statement saying that the state will "fight these federal actions that destroy jobs and opportunities for economic development."
     The Alaska Department of Fish and Game disputes the science used to set the boundaries of the critical habitat. "There is insufficient data to substantiate the designation of these vast areas of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for beluga whales," said Commissioner Cora Campbell. "Many of these areas lack the essential features identified as important to beluga whales."
     The designation is effective May 11, 2011.