Court nixes more beluga protection

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

ANCHORAGE - Cook Inlet beluga whales will not join the endangered species list.

In a lawsuit brought by six environmental groups and one individual, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson of Washington, D.C., ruled late Monday that the National Marine Fisheries Service acted within the law to designate Cook Inlet belugas as "depleted" but not endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Robertson said the groups did not prove that the fisheries service acted arbitrarily in rejecting the higher level of protection.

"We're obviously very disappointed in the judge's decision," said Jack Sterne of Trustees for Alaska, the law firm that represented the groups and former Native subsistence hunter Joel Blatchford. The groups may appeal, Sterne said.

Sterne said plaintiffs presented evidence that most marine mammal experts agree that Cook Inlet beluga whales are at risk of extinction. Once estimated at up to 1,300 whales, the Cook Inlet beluga population has dropped since the 1980s to 300 to 400 animals.

The fisheries service in June 2000 rejected adding Cook Inlet belugas to the endangered species list. The agency instead opted to continue to designate the belugas as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Since the depletion was caused by overharvesting, the agency said, the problem could be remedied by limits on whale hunting now in place without resorting to the Endangered Species Act.

Blatchford joined with the Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, National Audubon Society, Ocean Conservancy, Alaska Community Action on Toxins and the Center for Biological Diversity in suing the fisheries service.

Three Alaska municipalities - Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough - intervened on behalf of the fisheries service, as did the Resource Development Council and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Municipal officials feared that placing beluga whales on the endangered species list would add a layer of regulation to Cook Inlet activities, such as oil and gas development, shipping to the Port of Anchorage, and wastewater discharge.

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