Alaska Governor Fights Against Proposed Protected Space for Endangered Beluga Whales

beluga  mom and baby photo

Photo via iwona_kellie via Flickr CC

The beluga whales of Cook Inlet have dwindled in population from around 1,300 in the early 1980s to around 300 today. They're genetically and behaviorally unique based on where they live, but their people-populated living space is part of what keeps them in harm's way. And the governor of Alaska Sean Parnell is doing nothing to assist them in gaining a proposed 3,000 mile area of protected space. Reuters reports that under a proposal issued on Tuesday by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), over 3,000 square miles - about one third of the inlet - would be set aside as protected. However, it's the exact area that has Parnell battling against it. Alaska's former governor Sarah Palin battled against getting the whales listed as endangered in the first place. It seems the whales have few friends in government in their state.

The space covers summer feeding areas where the whales enjoy salmon and smelt while feeding their newborns, but it also overlays areas used heavily for oil and gas production, shipping, fishing and municipal wastewater discharge, according to the article.

beluga protected space image

Image via NOAA

Parnell is arguing that the protected area will only harm commerce while doing nothing to boost beluga numbers. While it would likely impact commerce, having water cleared - or at least limited - of human activity would very likely help to at least stabilize, if not increase numbers for the sheer fact that there's less disturbance and pollutants entering the beluga habitat. The initial decline in numbers is due to overharvesting by Native subsistance hunters, but scientists say it is the environmental impact of human in the inlet that are keeping the numbers from bouncing back.

The location of the proposed habitat is based on scientific research as well. From NOAA, "We have used the best available science and the traditional knowledge of Alaska natives to identify areas essential to helping Cook Inlet beluga whales survive," said Doug Mecum, acting administrator of NOAA's Fisheries Service Alaska region.

So while the proposed protected habitat falls within a range where heavy commerce takes place, it is indeed the best hope for the species. NOAA's Fisheries Service scientists estimate that there is a 26% chance that these whales will become extinct in the next 100 years, so measures like protected habitat are vital.

The period for public comments open today and runs through January 31, 2010. A final decision will be made in early spring of 2010.

More on Protecting Endangered Species
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