Constraints on Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Team Sparks Controversy

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A controversy over constraints on the participants of the Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Team has letters flying back and forth between state and federal officials and other team members. The issue first arose in January when recovery team leader Tamara McGuire wrote to James Balsiger the head of NOAA Fisheries for the Alaska region. McGuire’s letter said science panel members were unhappy that department of Fish and Game commissioner Cora Campbell made clear that state scientists on the recovery team could not speak freely about the plight of the beluga. Other team members worried this would inject politics into the work of developing a recovery plan. The state is suing the federal government over the listing of Cook Inlet Beluga as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Craig Matkin is a biologist with the non-profit North Coast Oceanic Society and one of the biologists on the panel. He says he has great respect for  both Robert Small and Mark Willette, the two state scientists who were selected to represent the state on the science panel, but he says it’s important that they be allowed to work independently of state policy and he says that policy has taken a troubling turn in recent years.

NOAA Alaska region head James Balsiger says he thinks having state biologists on the team is valuable, but given the state’s stance on the whales, it will be important to track whether state biologists are talking policy or science.

Balsiger says the state has been up front about their position and Campbell’s letter clarifies that. He says he is confident the state is not trying to undermine the process. But he says other scientists on the team have raised the issue with DC level offices in NOAA and that could impact how the panel proceeds. Balsiger says because the state is suing NOAA over the endangered listing, they wouldn’t want their biologists to say something that might compromise their position in court.

Fish and Game endangered species coordinator Doug Vincent Lang says the state’s position is that the ESA listing is premature, that the beluga population is stabilized and has begun a slow increase. He says the policy laid out in the letter predates Cora Campbell and has been in place for three or four years. He says there’s a lot of disagreement within the department on various elements of what’s happening with the Cook Inlet beluga but those perspectives will be brought forward by the two state scientists and they must follow department mandates.

There are two panels involved in planning for the Cook Inlet Beluga’s recovery. One is a stakeholder panel that has state, oil and gas industry and NGOs represented on it. Campbell’s letter also raised concerns that the science panel meetings were closed to the stakeholders. She wrote that action ‘unnecessarily increases suspicions’. She urged the science panel to open its meetings to the stakeholder group. One of the stakeholder panel members, John Schoen worked for Fish and Game for 20 years. He now works for the Audubon Society. He says the stakeholder group is working together well and that is the proper place for the state’s views to be heard. But he says autonomous science is vital to the beluga recovery effort. In the 1980s, the Cook Inlet beluga population was around 1,300, currently the number is around 300. He says few scientists would argue that the whales are in a precarious position and could easily be driven into extinction.

At this point it’s not clear how the issue will be resolved. A meeting of the science panel is scheduled for April 12. The Marine Mammal Commission and Cook Inletkeeper also sent letters expressing strong reservations about the state’s position.

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