Joint Media Statement from Environmental Investigation Agency, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Cook Inletkeeper, and Defenders of Wildlife
NEW COOK INLET BELUGA WHALE ABUNDANCE ESTIMATE HIGHLIGHTS UNCERTAINTY IN STATUS AND UNDERSCORES NEED FOR PRECAUTIONARY MANAGEMENT APPROACH
A highly-anticipated, and long-delayed, abundance estimate suggests that the precipitous decline of endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales may be stabilizing but more data is needed to confirm the conservation status of these whales. While the news is encouraging, continued vigilance is needed to ensure that the population stabilizes and recovers. Reducing threats that are impacting long-term population recovery remains essential.
Yesterday, NOAA Fisheries released a new abundance estimate for Cook Inlet beluga whales for the first time in over five years. The new estimate of approximately 331 individuals does appear to be a slight uptick from the 279 belugas estimated in 2018, but consistent annual surveys are needed for a reliable understanding of population status and health.
The agency is celebrating the new estimate and claiming the population has stabilized, or even slightly increased, and suggests the previous declines observed from 2008-2018 may have been due to a natural population oscillation or the marine heat wave in the Gulf of Alaska. However, these theories have not been tested and there is not sufficient information to draw conclusions about their potential impact on the status of the population.
“The slight increase in numbers is better than the alternative, but we need to consider the variability of estimates from year to year,” said Ragen Davey, the marine representative at Defenders of Wildlife. “The whales face multiple challenges that need to be addressed, including questions of food availability, pollution sources, and noise. This recent population estimate further emphasizes the importance of frequent population counts.”
“One data point is never a trend and for more than a decade, the overall beluga abundance within Cook Inlet has been one of steady decline. What is certain is that these unique and geographically isolated beluga whales have continually been exposed to a myriad of increasing cumulative stressors,” said CT Harry, Senior Marine Policy Analyst with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). “We are concerned by the inconsistency in surveys and overall lack of abundance data; for a species that NOAA has designated as a ‘Species in the Spotlight,’ we are largely in the dark about their true health,” Harry continued.
Harmful underwater noise from oil and gas development, Port of Alaska expansion and general industrialization of Upper Cook Inlet, reductions in critical prey availability, and pollution/contamination exposures all occur frequently within the federally designated critical habitat of the Cook Inlet beluga. In order to address the factors preventing Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery, NOAA Fisheries published a recovery plan in 2016, which identified over 60 recovery actions to be implemented within five years in order to reverse the population decline and begin to promote recovery. To date, only about half of the recovery actions have been initiated while the population continues to be on the brink of extinction. If the federal government’s status quo approach to managing these endangered whale continues, the population could get dangerously close to the critical 200-individual threshold identified by scientists at which small population dynamics, such as inbreeding and reduction of genetic fitness, can significantly reduce Cook Inlet beluga whale’s potential for recovery.
“While it’s positive that the rate of decline may be stabilizing, it does not mean this population of beluga whales is stable or healthy. Our Kenai-based beluga monitoring coordinator has indicated an increase in the population does not coincide with what monitors saw inlet-wide this past spring. Only time will tell if this is real population growth or variance in the data, especially given recent studies showing Cook Inlet belugas are reproducing slower than other belugas, and that their primary food sources are in decline. It’s more important now than ever to keep working to reduce the threats that impair the population’s recovery,” said Mandy Migura, Deputy Director and Marine Program Coordinator for Alaska Wildlife Alliance.
Tyler Huling, Policy Director, Cook Inletkeeper also called for renewed focus on the threats facing Cook Inlet belugas, stating “Inletkeeper is pleased that the Cook Inlet Beluga population appears to be stabilizing – but sees this news as a testament to the resiliency of the Beluga and not as an endorsement of the current stewardship of the Inlet. Cook Inlet faces several significant point source pollution challenges. Anchorage’s sewage and wastewater is discharged directly into the Inlet with only minimal treatment – the largest municipality in the country to still be allowed to do so – and oil companies are granted exemptions that allow them to dump toxic waste directly into critical Beluga habitat. Given this disrespect for the Cook Inlet ecosystem, it is remarkable that the Beluga population is stable. Imagine how they might thrive if we took better care of their waters.”
Environmental Investigation Agency
Alaska Wildlife Alliance
Defenders of Wildlife