Two Removed from Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Science Panel

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Concern over the autonomy of scientists on the Cook Inlet beluga recovery science panel has prompted NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to remove the two panel members who work for the state of Alaska. The issue arose in January when Commissioner Cora Campbell wrote to NMFS saying despite the terms of reference laid out by NMFS stating scientists must serve on the panel independent of their respective agencies, ADF&G scientists would adhere to department policies and not act independently. Doug Mecum is deputy administrator for NOAA fisheries in Alaska. He says the state’s scientists were taken off the panel last week.

Mecum says NMFS did however make a change in how the science panel will conduct their meetings. Initially, panel members were to meet privately and then release their information to the other panel working on Cook Inlet beluga recovery, the stakeholder’s panel that represents oil and gas industry members, conservation groups and the state of Alaska. Now Mecum says, the science panel meetings will be open to the stakeholder group. He says partially, it’s a compromise.

It’s not yet been decided how that participation will be managed. Doug Vincent Lang is the deputy commissioner for the state’s fish and game department and also the endangered species coordinator for the state. He says the decision to remove the state’s scientists is disappointing.

Craig Matkin is on the science panel representing the North Gulf Oceanic Society. He says it’s unfortunate the state scientists had to go because they had valuable information that now leaves a vacuum, but he’s concerned about opening the meetings up to the stakeholders.

Matkin says as the members figure out how to proceed, the recovery plan for belugas that hover at precariously low numbers, is not moving forward.

The science panel’s most recent scheduled meeting was canceled because of concerns over the prospect of a government shutdown. It’s not known when the next meeting will be scheduled.

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