Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Guest editorial: Joint effort needed to study belugas now, before it’s too late

Should belugas be protected as an endangered species? This is really several questions in one:

Do belugas warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act? Definitely. The population has little chance of long-term survival unless its size can be increased and kept above 1,000 whales.

Wouldn’t the problem disappear as soon as the last beluga dies? Wouldn’t we save a fortune and years of trouble by covertly killing all the remaining belugas? No! That’s like saying the way to way to cure liver disease is by cutting out your liver. That kind of “cure” can be worse than the disease.

Don't fall for the myth that ecological disruptions lack economic and social consequences. Perhaps the best-known marine example is impacts to commercial fishing when sea otter numbers crashed along the central Pacific coast. Without their predation on sea urchins, the urchins did so much damage to kelp forests that fish dependent on these forests crashed. A “balance” between predator and prey numbers is vital to the health of an ecosystem.

Hasn’t the decline in belugas actually helped fishermen? We don’t know. Granted, belugas compete with salmon for herring prey; and belugas eat salmon. But whether those losses outweigh benefits provided by belugas is still impossible to say. Ecological impacts of changing beluga numbers are largely unknown, despite decades of requests by biologists for funding to study this.

Failure of governments to provide adequate support hasn’t made the problem go away; it’s just gotten worse and more expensive to cure. Had we been working on this full steam for the past two decades, we’d have solid answers in hand and have been able to innovate minimal-cost technologies for keeping human impacts within tolerable limits.

Unfortunately, local and state governments waited to the 11th hour and their feet are still dragging. With every passing month, chances of success fall and potential costs rise.

Would the benefits of protection outweigh the costs? Cost-benefit ratios vary from person to person, and community to community, depending on who reaps the benefits vs. who pays the costs. Some costs could be felt very quickly, for instance if beluga protection were to preclude mining coal on the western side of Cook Inlet or require installation of more thorough treatment of sewage and other effluents from Anchorage. However, until we know a lot more about how our activities impact belugas, we will have little basis for identifying needed protections, much less for evaluating their costs.

It’s time to pull our collective heads out of the sand and quickly ramp up studies of beluga ecology and of how we humans impact them. The sooner we have this information, the more effectively and efficiently we can identify and implement protective measures that meet beluga needs with minimal economic and social impact.

What steps should we take? Identify legal requirements under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other relevant statutes, court decisions and agency regulations.

We all know what a nightmare government red tape can be. This is partly a consequence of antiquated methods of educating ourselves about legalities. Invaluable aid has been provided by uploading legal information onto the Web where it is accessible to search engines. But even with that assistance, some laws, like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, are so convoluted that major sections defy logical analysis – a job I once attempted as an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Reading statutory law is just a first step. We also need to review case law and agency regulations. Some “laws” need to be clarified and/or made more user-friendly. It’s not enough to have the information available. You’ll never find the information you need unless you know enough to ask the right questions and how to interpret the answers. So-called “expert systems” employing artificial intelligence — way beyond that in search engines — could be of great assistance, and save folks a fortune in legal fees.

Business functions best in a climate where legal gray areas are minimized as much as possible so that we can anticipate with fair reliability which of our actions would be judged legal vs. illegal (as well as which conservation measures would be effective vs. ineffective). This may require being very proactive, perhaps in revising the MMPA.

For each municipality, business or other entity to tackle these challenges individually would be intolerably expensive. A far cheaper alternative is to do much of it collectively. For example, the Kenai Peninsula Borough might solicit donations from local industries and small businesses as matching funds for federal and state grants. Think of it as an economic stimulus package for Southcentral Alaska.

Every million dollars saved is another million dollars earned — tax free.

Dr. Stephen Stringham earned his master of science degree at the University of Alaska studying moose, and his doctorate degree studying bears. He is the author of five books on Alaska’s wildlife.

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