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Surveys Indicate Cook Inlet Beluga Population on the Rise

Further Evidence That a Critical Habitat Designation is Unnecessary

October 8, 2010 (ANCHORAGE) – The results of a new aerial survey conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service of Cook Inlet beluga whales shows the population continues to climb. The 2010 survey conducted last June found there are an estimated 340 belugas, up from 321 in 2009. According to the annual survey, the beluga population bottomed out at 278 in 2005 and has steadily increased for the past five years.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, sponsored a resolution last session urging the NMFS not to designate 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for belugas. The resolution passed with overwhelming support.

“It’s clear to me that the beluga population is on the upswing,” said Rep. Millett. “My concern is that a critical habitat designation will come with costly delays and a lot of regulatory red tape on the Port of Anchorage, oil and gas exploration, tourism and other sectors of the economy without any real benefit for the belugas."

The NMFS proposal would designate 3,000 square miles of upper Cook Inlet, the mid-inlet and all of the inlet’s western shores and Katchemak Bay as critical habitat for beluga whales. The agency has previously concluded that the primary cause for the population decline was an unsustainable harvest in the 1990s. A new cooperative management plan was finalized in 2000.

The Endangered Species Act states that economic effects must be considered before a critical habitat designation is determined. Areas can be excluded if it determines the benefit of exclusion outweighs the benefit of specifying an area as critical habitat.  The NMFS will issue its final decision later this month.

A copy of House Joint Resolution 40 is included with this news release. For more information, contact Rep. Millett at (907) 269-0222.

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