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Cook Inlet Beluga Whale - 5 Years on the Endangered Species List

Posted by Dorothy Melambianakis at Oct 22, 2013 12:00 PM |
The Cook Inlet beluga whale has been listed as Endangered for five years as of today, yet the draft recovery plan to guide its recovery has not been released to the public for comment. Additionally, the National Marine Fisheries Service will no longer conduct annual surveys, but instead survey every other year. With a current population estimate of 312 individual whales, what will the next five years bring for the beluga?
Cook Inlet Beluga Whale - 5 Years on the Endangered Species List

The beluga whale is perhaps the most iconic of Cook Inlet’s marine mammals.  A distinct population segment that remains in Cook Inlet year round, the Cook Inlet beluga’s numbers have plummeted from an estimated 1,300 individuals in the 70s and 80s to just over 300 remaining today.

After years of mis-management and federal feet dragging, the Cook Inlet beluga was finally listed as ‘Endangered’ under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on October 22, 2008.  This bittersweet ‘success’ should help the beluga by adding a layer of administrative protections that prohibit certain activities that directly or indirectly adversely affect this population.  ESA listing also requires federal agencies to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), to ensure that activities they authorize, fund or conduct will not jeopardize the species or destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.

Despite being listed as Endangered, several activities continue to be authorized that could affect the beluga population in Cook Inlet.  A recent renewal of Cook Inlet oil and gas development has led many new players to request authorization for seismic exploration, a process that involves deployment of in-water air guns and detonation of explosives under water. Partners of Cook Inletkeeper have recently sued NMFS for violating the ESA by allowing activities such as these.

Cook Inletkeeper has worked, and continues to work, on several fronts to protect the Cook Inlet beluga. Mega projects, pollution, noise, oil and gas development, sewage, military activities, and coastal development all potentially impact the beluga and its habitat.  Most recently, we have been participating on the Stakeholder Panel working to create the official recovery plan to help the beluga population rebound.  In March 2013, the Recovery Team, made up of the Stakeholder Panel and the Science Panel, presented its draft recovery plan to the NMFS, but it has yet to be released to the public for comment.  After 5 years of being listed as Endangered, when will the federal government finally release the plan to guide the beluga’s recovery?

Read more on our Beluga Whale Issues page.