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Cook Inlet beluga whale

The Washington Post, October 18, 2008

Alaska Whales Protected Over Palin's Objections
By Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post Staff Writer

The Bush administration yesterday named the beluga whale in Alaska's Cook Inlet an endangered species despite opposition to the move by Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee.

By affording the whale protection under the Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will now embark on an ambitious research effort to determine why the species is on the decline and whether any human activities in the area need to be curtailed in order to protect its habitat.

Subsistence hunting took a toll on the Cook Inlet beluga population, which numbered as many as 1,300 in the 1970s but now stands at 375. The federal government limited beluga whale hunting to just five animals between 1999 and 2006, but the population has continued to decline roughly by 1.5 percent annually instead of growing by 2 to 4 percent per year, as scientists had predicted.

"In fact, we haven't seen that level of recovery," said Brad Smith, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA's Fisheries Service. "We have some likely culprits that could be preventing recovery. They may or may not be things we can do anything about."

Killer-whale predation may be a factor, Smith said, along with underwater noise, contamination and a falloff in the number of salmon, which beluga whales eat, in the area. Beluga whales -- white, playful animals that average 14 feet long and 3,000 pounds -- are gregarious and live in a confined bodies of water, which makes them vulnerable to threats such as oil spills or disease outbreaks. The whales in Cook Inlet live in a roughly 10-square-mile area and are separated from Alaska's four other beluga whale populations, which are not classified as endangered.

Conservation groups had petitioned to list the Cook Inlet whales in March 1999, but NOAA initially decided that an end to hunting would halt the decline. In April 2006 the groups filed a new petition, and the agency proposed listing the population as endangered in 2007.

In August 2007, the Palin administration submitted 95 pages of data and comments in an effort to keep the whales off the list.

"The State of Alaska has had serious concerns about the low population of belugas in Cook Inlet for many years," Palin said in a statement yesterday. "However, we believe that this endangered listing is premature."

But Vicki Cornish -- vice president of the marine wildlife conservation program at the Ocean Conservancy, an advocacy group -- said that Palin's objections were not supported by the facts and that the listing "is long overdue."

Citing the expansion of Anchorage's port, ballast water discharges from ships and vessel traffic in the region, along with nearby oil, gas and mining activities, she added: "You are looking at a number of activities that are taking their toll on the entire Cook Inlet ecosystem."

Brendan Cummins, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, another advocacy group, said the listing clears up bickering and lets preservation efforts begin.

"This ends the debate about whether the beluga should be protected under the Endangered Species Act and starts the critically important process of actually working to recover the species and protect its habitat," he said.

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Photo © Paul S. Hamilton