July 14, 2015

Mr. Jon Kurland
Assistant Regional Administrator for Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
Alaska Regional Office
Protected Resources Division
P.O. Box 21668
709 W. 9th St., Rm. 420
Juneau, Alaska 99802-1668

Re:           Comments of the Resource Development Council on the Draft Recovery Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale (NOAA-NMFS-20150-0053)

Dear Mr. Kurland:

The Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc. (RDC) is writing to comment on the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) Draft Recovery Plan (DRP) for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale (CIBW). RDC participated in this recovery planning effort as an active member of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Team’s Stakeholder Panel and appreciates NMFS’s consideration of these comments.

RDC is a statewide, non-profit, membership-funded organization founded in 1975. The RDC membership is comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska’s oil and gas, mining, timber, tourism, and fisheries industries, as well as Alaska Native corporations, local communities, organized labor, and industry support firms. RDC’s purpose is to link these diverse interests together to encourage a strong, diversified private sector in Alaska and expand the state’s economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.

RDC has weighed in on a number of actions proposed for the CIBW, including the proposed critical habitat designation in 2010 and initial draft recovery plan offered in 2013. Many of RDC’s original concerns remain, and we once again urge NMFS to refrain from issuing a recovery plan that is virtually unobtainable, has no clear strategy for recovery, yet does have the potential to severely threaten Southcentral Alaska’s economy.

NMFS acknowledges in the DRP that the sole cause for the population decline of the CIBW was due to the unsustainable subsistence harvest that transpired in the 1990s.  RDC would like to emphasize that since statehood, economic and community development activities have occurred in Cook Inlet (CI) while the CIBW species thrived.  Indeed, these activities have long co-existed with the belugas. Responsible community and economic development have not adversely impacted these whales or impeded their recovery. 

Population Numbers are Flawed

The population numbers being used in the DRP as historical abundance and to represent a decline in CIBW are outdated and have been challenged by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and several stakeholders, including RDC. For example, the DRP claims that the CIBW population declined 4.1% per year from 1999 to 2006 (pg. 8), but fails to acknowledge the survey data that has occurred in the last nine years. In fact, from 2005 through 2014, the estimated CIBW population has increased by 22.3%.

RDC acknowledges that population numbers are highly variable, yet when the most current data margin of error is considered, the CIBW population has stabilized between 300 to 400 whales. While the population has not rebounded quickly from the effects of overharvesting, the full survey data does not suggest a decline in the CIBW, contrary to the DRP’s statements.

A model (results are presented in Figure 14) is used to project the probability of extinction 300 years from present. Projecting extinction probabilities out to such distant futures is questionable at best and completely dependent upon initial trend input information and model assumptions. RDC argues it is inappropriate to estimate probability of extinction beyond 50 given the error associated with the input variables and other uncertainties such as untested assumptions.  

Further, the continued use of the State of Alaska estimate of 1,200 belugas as the estimate for carrying capacity in CI is of utmost concern. This number is based on State collected data using methodology that is inconsistent with today’s standards. The State is in the best position to determine the utility and justifiable use and limitations of its data and has argued it does not believe it is appropriate to use this population estimate for carrying capacity. The best estimate for these purposes remains the historic NMFS abundance information, which was 653 individuals. This is a critical issue in that the carrying capacity variable significantly drives extinction probabilities in the extinction model used and has been demonstrated by the State in previously submitted comments. It is also critical in that it forms the foundation for the numerical down and de listing goals in the DRP.

Recovery goals included in the plan are dual faceted requiring both a numerical goal and for removal of all threats to be removed. Removal or mitigation of all known threats is problematic once a population has attained sustainable levels. All populations face a multitude of threats that potentially impact their growth rate in varying degrees throughout time.  The key question is whether the overall impact of the threats in combination is negatively impacting growth rate.  If the population is meeting its desired growth rate and population objective, the influence individual threats have is somewhat irrelevant.  Inclusion of criteria for single threats allows such criteria to be used as defacto vetos on down or de listing decisions regardless of overall population health.  As such, it is inappropriate to include specific criteria for each known threat that could prevent down or delisting if overall the population is meeting stated growth rate objectives.  Also, since many of the items are mandates for additional research (one even calls for the creation of a new position to coordinate recovery), this may benefit researchers more than belugas in that a researcher could claim that the mandated research must be completed prior to a status change, despite the population being at a level that allows a status change.  

The Draft Recovery Plan is not based on science

The DRP also speculates on perceived threats to the CIBW without sound science or justification. While all of the “threats” based on speculation are of concern to RDC, three main areas of concern in the DRP are the assertions that habitat impacts, prey reduction, and noise are of medium to high concern to the recovery of the CIBW.

The DRP states that anthropogenic activities can alter habitat temporarily or even permanently, but it is unknown how those activities might impact population levels. The DRP further notes that most of the beluga habitat in CI is still undisturbed and has not had adverse effects to the CIBW. With the stated “limited understanding” of how habitat and the CIBW function together, NMFS still concludes that loss or degradation of habitat is “of medium concern.” RDC asserts that, in the absence of sound science, classifying degradation of habitat as a medium level threat is capricious and unwarranted.

The report also concludes that fisheries “may result in a reduction of prey that may result in reduced carrying capacity of CI beluga habitat or reduce CI beluga fitness.” However, the DRP goes on to state that the magnitude of the impact of a reduction of prey on CI belugas is unknown, as is the trend and future probability, yet the reduction of prey is of “medium concern”. This is concerning in that it may lead NMFS to conclude that fishing may result in “nutritional stress” in the CIBW (as was done with Steller sea lions in the Aleutians) which led to fishery restrictions based solely on assumptions that there “may” be an impact.  Such restrictions could significantly impact existing state managed commercial, personal use, sport and subsistence fisheries in Cook Inlet.

The DRP is riddled with evidence that there is little to no known data linking noise in CI to the recovery or overall health of the CIBW.  Nevertheless, the DRP considers noise a “threat” of “high concern” to the recovery of the species. On page 42, the DRP states, “Little work has been done regarding acoustic of CI beluga whales and none has yet been published in peer-reviewed journals.” Page 43 continues, “Anthropogenic noise sources in Cook Inlet have not yet been identified and acoustically characterized in the context of their effects on beluga hearing and communications,” and “Little is currently known regarding effects of noise exposure on belugas.” After conceding the lack of available noise studies and thus any reasonable science linking noise and the impact it may have on the CIBW, the DRP boldly suggests a reduction in “the negative impacts of noise-producing activities” as criteria for de-listing the CIBW. This assertion is without merit, and RDC requests that all speculative statements regarding noise be removed from the DRP until further studies have been completed and peer reviewed. 

The DRP calls for implementing a system for allocating takes (by harassment) of CIBW.  This is not explained adequately as to how the allocation cap will be allocated and who will be deciding on allocation criteria.  For example, would it be on a first come first served basis or will criteria be developed?  It is critical that these issues be addressed in the recovery plan if this strategy remains.

RDC members have spent millions of dollars on research on the belugas. It is unclear if any of the data is used in the DRP or agency analysis. RDC urges NMFS to incorporate research and studies by industry, as well as incorporate the research-first approached to obtain the data necessary to recover the CIBW. The estimated cost of this research is substantial (over $70 million) and time consuming.  NMFS should outline how this research will be timely funded and by whom to ensure Section 7 consultations are based on the best available information.

The DRP does not take in account mitigation and existing protections

Finally, RDC reminds NMFS that the CI is a heavily regulated region that is the economic lifeblood of Southcentral Alaska. CI houses the Port of Anchorage, where an estimated 90% of goods for 85% of Alaska’s population areas enter the state. Protection measures already in place to protect the CIBW include, but are not limited to: the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Oil Pollution Act, and Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The oil and gas industry also incorporates several mitigation measures to deter any impacts on the CIBW, which are outlined in detail in comments submitted by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association (July 14, 2015).

While the DRP may not be a “regulatory mandate,” history has shown that it will guide the development of other regulatory documents and decisions (i.e., the Steller sea lion recovery plan which was used in the Steller sea lion Biological Opinion) and as such it is critical that documents be based on sound science and reasoning. Recovery goals and threats to those goals are considered by NMFS in conducting Endangered Species Act Section 7 consultations and can be viewed by other federal, state and local regulatory bodies as indicative of a serious impact warranting further restrictions and conditions.  Where there is, as the DRP acknowledges, a “potential” effect but no analysis supporting more, imposing such burdens on project proponents is arbitrary and capricious, with no added benefit to the listed species.

RDC also resubmits for the record, a copy of an independent economic analysis conducted by Resource Dimensions, commissioned by RDC (March, 2010), which outlines the economic impacts related to the critical habitat designation for the CIBW.  The study estimates the impacts to Anchorage’s economy could approach $3.4 billion, with no added benefit to the CIBW.

RDC appreciates the opportunity to comment and looks forward to remaining engaged as an active member of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Team’s Stakeholder Panel.


The Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc.