Tag Archives: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

In Spite of Sarah Palin’s Objection: Cooks Inlet Whales to Get Hatitat Protection

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is no friend to the endangered Cook Inlet Beluga whales.

In October, 2008, former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin strongly objected, when the US Fisheries Service listed the Cook Inlet beluga whale as endangered. In addition, before making the decision to quit as governor, Palin threatened to sue over the endangered status of the whale.

On December 1, 2009, after an October 29th notice of intent to sue by Center for Biological Diversity, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finally announced habitat designation for the Cook Inlet beluga whale. The proposal would encompass 3,016 square miles to include parts of Cook Inlet (the whale’s primary summer habitat), mid-Cook Inlet; also the western shore of lower Cook Inlet, and Kachemak Bay on the eastern side.

“While today’s proposal is an important step toward protecting the Cook Inlet beluga, protections for the species remains far from complete,” said Brendan Cummings, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage. “Critical habitat designation should be promptly finalized and expanded to include the lower Inlet. Moreover, the Fisheries Service needs to prepare a recovery plan and stop freely handing out permits to industry allowing the beluga’s habitat to be developed and disturbed.”

The Endangered Species Act was a law enacted in 1973 to protect threatened species and by extension, the specie’s habitat.

Endangered Species Act (5)(A) The term “critical habitat” for a threatened or endangered species means—(i) the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed in accordance with the provisions of section 4 of this Act, on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection.

The ESA law is clear that vital habitat in which an endangered animal lives must to be protected to promote the growth and health of the population. Industry and politics should not supersede the ESA designation, although attempts to do so occur on a regular basis.

Far too often, federal agencies face political pressures and will delay taking action until they are forced by conservation groups, like The Center for Biological Diversity, to uphold the laws within the ESA.

After Sarah Palin left Alaskan politics, lieutenant governor Sean Parnell was sworn in to take her place. Parnell took up Palin’s stand on protecting industry–over wildlife.

“Listing more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat would do little to help grow the beluga population, but it would devastate economic opportunities in the region,” Governor Parnell said. “The beluga whale population has been coexisting with industry for years. The main threat facing belugas was over-harvest, which is now regulated under a cooperative harvest management plan. Belugas are also protected under the Marine Mammal Act.”

Yet, hunting the whales became illegal a decade ago and they have continued to decline. According to statistics from NOAA, the estimated Cook Inlet beluga whale population has dwindled from 1,300 individuals down to 300 whales.

NOAA’s official announcement contends: recovery of Cook Inlet whales is potentially hindered by severe stranding events; continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet; industrial and municipal activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants; disease; predation by killer whales and losses of available prey to fishing or loss of prey habitat. Protecting habitat is essential to the beluga whales’ recovery.

The Cook Inlet whale is one of five species of beluga or white whales and is a genetically distinct in comparison to the four other distant populations of belugas. Normally, belugas move from pod to pod, but that is geographically not possible for the Cooks Inlet whales.

Belugas tend to be the most social, playful, and interactive of the cetacean species and are the only whales known to swim backwards, making them popular attractions at theme parks.

NOAA’s announcement signals the opening of a public comment period that will remain open until January 31, 2010. The designation will not be finalized until spring. Once the designation is final, federal agencies would have to consult with NOAA’s Fisheries Services to make sure there would be no adverse effect to the whale’s habitat before permits for new development could be issued.

Sarah Palin has moved on from her failed bid as John McCain’s Vice president and her short stent as governor of Alaska; to the media spotlight of her book tour promoting “Going Rogue.”

But Governor Parnell, true to his predecessor Sarah Palin and her kill-baby-kill attitude toward wolves, polar bears, whales, and other wildlife—has indicated the state will review all legal options regarding the listing and the proposed critical habitat protection.

The fight may not be over, so it is vitally important to encourage NOAA to proceed with the designated protection of the whale’s habitat and restore this vital natural resource for all Alaskans and nature lovers for generations to come.

Send comments to: Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources, Alaska Region, NOAA Fisheries, ATTN: Ellen Sebastian. Comments must be identified by “RIN 0648-AX50” and sent by any one of the following methods:

Electronic submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal website at http://www.regulations.gov
Mail: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK, 99802-1668.
Fax: 907-586-7557
Hand deliver to the Federal Building: 709 West 9th Street, Room 420A, Juneau, AK

Perhaps, at long last, the smiling white faces of Cooks Inlet whales will begin to frolic in clean, undisturbed, pristine waters, and be recognized as the valued natural asset they are to the region and to the world.

More information the status of the Cook Inlet WhaleCenter for Biological Diversity

Jean Williams
Examiner.com

Will Gov. Palin Help Save the Beluga Whales? 18 Threats to Alaskan Belugas (Videos)

The Anchorage Daily News examines what the next steps will to save the endangered Alaska Cook Inlet Beluga whales. Will Alaska Governor Sarah Palin assist in saving the Beluga whales? Perhaps right after she saves the Polar bears.

Declaring Cook Inlet beluga whales an endangered species – as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did Friday – was only the first step toward protecting them. Now federal biologists are trying to figure out exactly what’s endangering them.

The newly released “Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale” – a 128-page report compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service – takes a preliminary stab at the question, listing 18 possible threats to the local whale population.

Five of those threats would pose a “high” risk of jeopardizing the belugas were they to occur, the study says. Among them are two natural dangers: disease and strandings of whales on mud flats.

Three are man-made dangers: whale poaching, food reduction (by damaging salmon habitat or over-fishing) and unnatural noise in the water (such as off-shore drilling, pile-driving in the construction of a Knik Arm bridge or expansion of the Port of Anchorage).

The report also lists as “unknown” the impact on belugas that might result from three man-made dangers: Oil and gas spills, systematic water pollution (including the partially treated sewage Anchorage discharges into Cook Inlet) and environmental change (such as ocean warming).

“Certainly oil and gas development and all in-water activities that might introduce pollutants are a concern,” says Fisheries Service biologist Brad Smith, one of the conservation plan authors.

Continue reading

Bush Administration to Gov. Palin: Beluga Whale in Alaska is Endangered

Beluga whales are now listed as an endangered species.

Beluga whales are now listed as an endangered species.

Alaska’s Gov. Sarah Palin has questioned scientific evidence that the beluga whale population in the waters near Anchorage is declining. In fact last summer she urged the federal government not to list the whale as endangered, citing concerns of what a listing might do to the Cook Inlet economy.

But today the U.S. Government replied with a decisive counter, declaring the beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet an endangered species. The findings by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration trigger a rigorous regimen to protect the whales, dwindled to an estimated 375 from their 1995 high of 653.

The decision by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service could trump a decision by the U.S. Interior Department to make oil leases available on Cook Inlet, where energy analysts see an estimated $1.38 billion worth of resources.

“In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering,” said James Balsiger, NOAA’s acting assistant administrator. The agency added that oil and gas exploration had hindered the whale’s existence.

As the Associated Press noted, this is the second run-in Palin has had with the Bush administration over the Endangered Species Act. Earlier, the governor, now Republican vice presidential candidate, had asked the courts to overturn an Interior Department decision declaring polar bears threatened.

Bush administration to Gov. Palin: Beluga whale in Alaska is endangered

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NOAA Lists Cook Inlet Beluga Whales as Endangered

October 17, 2008

NOAA today announced that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population near Anchorage is in danger of extinction, and has been listed as an endangered species.

“In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering,” said James Balsiger, NOAA acting assistant administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service.

Listing the Cook Inlet beluga whales means any federal agency that funds, authorizes, or carries out new projects or activities that may affect the whales in the area must first consult with NOAA’s Fisheries Service to determine the potential effects on the whales. A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.

In 2000, NOAA declared the Cook Inlet beluga population depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In response to a petition submitted by the Trustees for Alaska on April 20, 2006, the agency proposed on April 20, 2007, that Cook Inlet beluga whales be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The act requires a final determination by Oct. 20, 2008. This announcement is the result of NOAA’s scientific review of the proposal to list Cook Inlet belugas.

The Cook Inlet beluga population declined nearly 50 percent between 1994 and 1998, based on annual scientific surveys. NOAA scientists estimated the Cook Inlet beluga population at 375 for both 2007 and 2008. Estimates have varied from a high of 653 belugas in 1994 to a low of 278 belugas in 2005.

Despite restrictions on Alaskan Native subsistence harvest of Cook Inlet belugas starting in 1999, the population is still not recovering. Between 1999 and 2006, Alaska Native hunters took a total of five Cook Inlet beluga whales for subsistence. No beluga whales were harvested in 2007 or 2008.

Cook Inlet belugas are one of five populations of belugas recognized within U.S. waters. The other beluga populations inhabit Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea, and the Beaufort Sea. Of the five stocks of beluga whales in Alaska, the Cook Inlet population is considered to be the most isolated, based on the degree of genetic differentiation and geographic distance between the Cook Inlet population and the four other beluga stocks.

The recovery of the Cook Inlet whales is potentially hindered by strandings; continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet and the cumulative effects on important beluga habitat; oil and gas exploration, development, and production; industrial activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants; disease; and predation by killer whales. The agency will identify habitat essential to the conservation of Cook Inlet belugas in a separate rulemaking within a year.

NOAA expects the final rule on this decision to be published in the Federal Register on Oct. 22. A pre-publication version of the rule is available now on NOAA’s Fisheries Service Alaska region Web site.

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.

Sarah Palin’s Alaskan Wasteland: A Look At Governor Palin’s Environmental Record

Shelia Kaplan and Marilyn Berlin Snell, writing for The New Republic, outline Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s environmental record.

There’s no reason to doubt Sarah Palin’s sincerity when she talks about her commitment to family and–more specifically–special-needs kids. When she introduced her son, who has Down syndrome, to the audience at the Republican convention, the family tableau drew cheers. And she issued a promise. “To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message for you,” she told the crowd. “For years, you’ve sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters, and I pledge to you that, if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House.”

Unfortunately, as governor of a state with a birth-defect rate that’s twice the national average, and which has the gloomy status as repository of toxic chemicals from around the world, Palin has pursued environmental policies that seem perfectly crafted to swell the ranks of special-needs kids. It’s true that Alaska’s top leaders have placed industry wishes over environmental protection for years. But, instead of correcting this problem, she’s compounded it. Peer into her environmental record, and Palin ends up looking a lot like George W. Bush.

In the past 20 years, research has shown that exposure to some metals and to chemicals such as pesticides, flame retardants, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can cause birth defects and permanent developmental disorders both prenatally and in the first years of childhood. And Alaska is vulnerable to some of the worst environmental pollutants out there. In a state whose wealth depends on the exploitation of its natural resources, the toxic byproducts of mining and energy development, such as arsenic, mercury, and lead, are particular problems. Alaska Natives, such as the Inuit people, eat a diet that is heavy in fish, seals, and whales–animals that are high on the food chain and therefore more likely to be contaminated with high doses of PCBs and mercury. And the state is vulnerable not only to homegrown pollution, but also to industrial pollution: Trace gases and tiny airborne particles are contaminating the polar regions, carried there on atmospheric and oceanic currents, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The mess of pollutants in Alaska has clearly taken its toll. In general, the state has double the national average of birth defects. While the causes are unknown, environmentalists point to the region that includes the North Slope, an area slightly larger than Minnesota, where most of Alaska’s oil is produced. The byproducts of oil production can cause serious nervous system disorders, and the North Slope and its environs, home to Alaska Natives and itinerant oil workers, has the highest prevalence of birth defects in the state–11 percent–compared with 6 percent statewide and 3 percent nationwide.

Palin, however, has not addressed these concerns. Her administration irked environmentalists in February 2008, when it opposed legislation that would have given parents at least 48 hours’ notice before schools were to be sprayed with pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Currently, parents get 24 hours, which the bill’s proponents say is not sufficient for parents who want to arrange to keep kids out of school for a few days after the chemicals are applied. Palin’s administration argued that the bill was too restrictive and would force schools to notify parents before cleaning toilets with disinfectant–which, supporters say, is not true. In the same month, members of Palin’s administration testified against language in legislation that would have banned polybrominated diphenyl ethers–a flame retardant that, studies show, harms the developing brain.

Then, in the summer of 2007, Palin allowed oil companies to move forward with a toxic-dumping plan in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, the only coastal fishery in the nation where toxic dumping is permitted. The Bush administration initially OK’d the companies’ request to increase toxic releases, but the permits could not be issued without Alaska’s certification that the discharges met the state’s water-quality standards, says Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, an organization founded to protect the area’s watershed. Palin complied. “Palin’s Department of Environmental Conservation issued that certification [based on] the long-discounted notion that ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’–turning the federal Clean Water Act on its head and actually increasing toxic pollution,” Shavelson says.

Palin next took on the Clean Water Initiative, also known as Proposition 4, which appeared on the Alaska ballot on August 26. The measure would have limited the runoff of toxic metals–known to cause developmental and birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–from all mining operations, but it was aimed at stopping the proposed Pebble Mine, a huge mining proposal that was controversial for its potential impact on Bristol Bay, the world’s largest commercial wild salmon fishery (for which Palin’s oldest daughter was named). The project had been in the works for years, and, when she ran for governor in 2006, Palin told the Alaska Journal of Commerce that, if the mine was green-lighted, “there will be remediation from now to eternity.” Once in office, though, environmental concerns took a backseat. In a TV interview six days before the vote, Palin said, “Let me take my governor’s hat off for just a minute, and tell you personally, Prop 4–I vote no on that.” Alaska’s mining industry parlayed Palin’s face and words into an advertising blitz–and came from behind to defeat it.

Palin’s latest anti-environmental effort also came in August, when she attempted to block California’s plan to curb its air pollution. The Golden State is trying to reduce its toxic emissions with a port fee that would pay for pollution-reduction projects around the state. Arguing that it would hurt Alaska’s economy, Palin asked California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto the proposed legislation.

Finally, Palin was pushed by environmental activists and Alaska Natives to pressure the military in its cleanup of one of the most contaminated sites in Alaska–but the state didn’t act. This was on the old Northeast Cape Air Force base on remote St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea–one of the state’s closest spots to Russia. When the military closed its operations in the 1970s, it left thousands of barrels of toxic waste, containing solvents, fuels, heavy metals, pesticides, and PCBs, a group of toxic organic chemicals that have persisted in the environment. For the past few years, the Army Corps of Engineers has been slowly cleaning up parts of the site and claims it will leave it safe. (One federally funded study still in progress by the state’s premier watchdog on chemical pollutants, Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), tested the local water and got a reading that was more than one thousand times the level that the EPA considers safe. “If the Corps of Engineers want to fill up their canteens in there, they are welcome to it,” says Kathrine Springman, the toxicologist who did that study. “Actually, I wouldn’t want them to drink it … anymore than I would ask them to drink Drano.”)

But critics say the Army is taking too long, and that its plan will leave too many untreated chemicals, PCBs in particular, at the site. According to Pamela Miller, ACAT’s executive director, Palin should have used her powers as governor to forge a better cleanup plan. “Certainly this was also a pattern in the Murkowski administration, but, under Palin, it’s gotten worse,” she said. “Her administration has done nothing to work with the military to avoid possible contamination.” Scientists have also opposed the Army’s plan, saying it will leave the area dangerous.

Supporters note that Palin did boost school spending for children with the most severe disabilities, but, in general, the Alaskan government under Palin has done nothing to protect those children and future generations from the toxic stew that the state has become. “She doesn’t have a good understanding of the science,” says Ruth Etzel, who until recently was research director at the Alaska Native Medical Program in Anchorage. “What she tends to do is talk about personal responsibility as the key to good health.”

Andrea Doll, a Democratic state representative from Juneau, says she tried to get Palin interested in her bill on flame retardants early on: “I told her about the bill. She totally was not interested in any way, shape, or form. It was that look on her face–that ‘don’t even go there’ look.

Sarah Palin’s Alaskan Wasteland: A Look At Governor Palin’s Environmental Record