ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The tide is rising again in the debate over beluga whales, as a National Marine Fisheries Service report showing an increase in the Cook Inlet beluga population from 321 to 340 this year was released Friday.
Some, including State Rep. Charisse Millett, say the report proves that belugas shouldn’t be considered for a critical habitat designation later this month. But experts and others say this year’s higher numbers are not the whole story.
Cook Inlet’s belugas can affect a lot of the construction taking place at the Port of Anchorage. Port Director Bill Sheffield says five spotters are employed to watch for belugas whenever there's work going on near the water.
“We have a contract with those people to man those towers at all times we're under construction,” Sheffield said.
If the spotters see a whale, under federal endangered-species rules, the work must stop. The port estimates it spends $5 million a year to follow the federal regulations.
“That's a lot of money, and when you add in the inefficiencies of construction, maybe it’s $15 million a year here for that purpose,” Sheffield said.
Sheffield says he's pleased with the NMFS announcement that the number of belugas in Cook Inlet have increased from last year to this year.
“It’s encouraging that everything that's being done, for some reason, might help increase the population of the beluga whale,” Sheffield said.
He hopes the numbers will help the port avoid a critical habitat designation for belugas.
“I think if we're not in critical habitat, I think the National Marine Fisheries Service won't put any more restrictions on us than we have now,” Sheffield said.
But when it comes to beluga numbers in Cook Inlet, others say not so fast.
“The two measurements are not significantly different -- there's some variability year-to-year in the estimates,” said Rod Hobbs with the National Marine Mammal Lab.
Hobbs acknowledges that beluga numbers are up this year, but says that's not the big picture.
“It’s more important to look at the long-term trend over the last 10 years, and the trend has shown a slow decline in the population,” Hobbs said.
It’s a trend experts began to notice in the 1990s.
“The fisheries service went through the process of declaring the population endangered because there are only 350 animals or fewer, and it's a small population and it's declining,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs says it could take five years to determine whether the beluga population is truly rebounding, because the growth trends are so slow -- typically about 1 to 2 percent each year.
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