KENAI - The population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet is half what it was less than a decade ago, leading some experts to argue the whales should fall under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.
The whales are listed as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service is reviewing the status of the creatures to determine if they should come under the stiffer regulatory control of the Endangered Species Act, which would require that specific critical habitat be designated.
A draft beluga whale conservation plan required under the Marine Mammals Protection Act has recently completed a public comment period.
The Marine Mammal Commission issued a review of the conservation plan in late June that recommended that it be substantially rewritten to clearly describe threats to the whale population and provide specific actions for recovery.
The Marine Mammal Commission also recommended that NMFS act quickly to reconsider listing the Cook Inlet belugas under the tougher provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
Brad Smith, a biologist with NMFS' Protected Resource Division, said the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act tend to overlap. For instance, any mammal listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act is automatically listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But the two laws differ when it comes to their relative legal force, Smith said.
"If the Cook Inlet belugas were listed under the Endangered Species Act, it would obligate NMFS to designate critical habitat for the species," Smith said. "We are not obligated to do that under the depleted status."
A group of 17 Alaska and Outside environmental organizations, including Cook Inlet Keeper, the Alaska Center for the Environment and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club, submitted comments on the draft conservation plan.