The carefully-watched population of beluga whales in Alaska’s heavily-used Cook Inlet continued to shrink in the most recent counts, despite efforts to minimize the disruption of a major construction project underway at the Port of Anchorage. This report from a local TV station gives a good quick overview, and this article in the Alaska Journal of Commerce has a bit more detail. A NMFS survey counted 321 belugas this year, down from 375 last year, when the Cook Inlet beluga population was officially listed as threatened; a habitat protection plan is in process. The survey (as with previous ones) has a substantial margin of error; numbers could be anywhere between 226 and 456, according to a good overview in a local paper. Construction at the Port of Alaska, which began several years ago and is slated to continue until 2014, is halted when belugas are seen nearby (the distance at which construction is halted is not specified in recent articles; belugas are, however, highly sensitive to sound, often avoiding sound sources at greater distances than many other species).
“This wasn’t in my budget,” said Port Director Paul Sheffield of the whale watchers, laughing, “but yeah, we spent about a million dollars a year and we hire about 22 people.” The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that the whales would not experience long-term adverse affects from the noise, but some people fear it may be driving them away. Lois Epstein is an engineer who runs the Alaska Tranporation Priorities Project, a group which promotes safe, economic, environmentally appropriate projects. “Of course it’s good that during construction they are trying to minimize the effect on the Cook Inlet belugas but that’s not going to save the whale during the long run, that’s only during the construction phase,” Epstein said.
According to a detailed article on the current expansion project by Courthouse News Service, The port expansion project was originally planned in 1999 as a relatively modest renovation project, expected to cost $229 million. But that all changed after Sheffield was hired as port director in 2001. “They just kind of scrapped the whole deal and decided they would mow over the whole port,” Richard Burg told the Anchorage Daily News. The newspaper said Burg lost his job as port engineer in 2002 in a dispute over the huge project, because he did not see the need for it.