The Cook Inlet beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population that remains year round in Cook Inlet for mating, rearing and feeding. After a dramatic population decline of nearly 50% in the 1990s, and steadily declining numbers since then, the Cook Inlet beluga was designated as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. Despite that listing the beluga has not shown appreciable increase in abundance.
Annual surveys conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) since 1999 have ranged between 278 and 435 individual belugas, with the most recent survey in 2012 estimating that only 312 belugas remain in Cook Inlet today - down from historical estimates of 1,300. NMFS has recently introduced a biennial survey schedule, and no survey is planned for 2013 to determine if populations are increasing, remaining steady or continuing to decrease.
Continuing to protect critical habitat, determining the causes of the continued declines, and working to curtail or eliminate those causes, offers the best hope this that Cook Inlet icon will endure for generations to come.
Cook Inlet is the most populated and fastest growing watershed in Alaska. The state’s largest city, Anchorage, lies adjacent to some of the most important beluga habitat in the region. Polluted run-off from rain and snowmelt, combined with large sewage discharges, pour directly into prime beluga feeding, mating and birthing habitats. Cook Inlet is also the birthplace of commercial oil and gas development in Alaska, and underwater seismic blasting, toxic dumping from offshore platforms, and regular leaks and spills threaten the whales and their habitat. The U.S. Army also retains a presence in Cook Inlet, and its bombing range at Eagle River Flats regularly showers toxic and other pollutants into areas that support belugas and their prey. Cook Inlet is also a major shipping hub and fishing center, and ship traffic, noise, port dredging and prey disturbance may also be affecting belugas.
In addition to existing development, a series of development proposals raises serious concerns about the future for beluga whales in Cook Inlet. These potential mega projects include:
Port of Anchorage These plans call for over 135 acres of fill in beluga habitat as part of a major expansion project, with hundreds of additional acres impacted by dredging.
Chuitna Coal Strip Mine Lying southwest of Anchorage, this project is advancing towards permitting the largest coal strip mine in Alaska, and would add another major industrial port in an area important to belugas.
Knik Arm Crossing This proposed bridge and fill project that would bisect some of the most important beluga habitat in the entire Inlet, just outside of Anchorage.
These and other projects in or near Cook Inlet that are or may affect beluga habitat are summarized here.
Aside from aerial surveys and limited tissue sampling, there has been no concerted effort to understand the individual and cumulative effects from these existing and proposed industrial activities. What is known is that with naturally low birth rates, a critically low current population, and no detectible increase in population, recovery of the Cook Inlet beluga is at a critical juncture. Cook Inlet boasts the highest tidal range in the United States, and even one mass stranding on the region’s shifting silt shoals could be enough to push the Cook Inlet beluga over the brink to extinction.
Species Listing History
The Cook Inlet beluga’s numbers plummeted nearly 50% from 1994-1999, a decline that at the time was largely attributed to subsistence hunting. In 1999, the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council, made up of tribes that had traditionally hunted Cook Inlet belugas, voluntarily curtailed their harvests, and harvests were subsequently disallowed completely in 2006.
Although scientists at the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission – the federal agency mandated by Congress to oversee NMFS and to protect the nation’s marine mammal resources – had repeatedly called on NMFS to list the beluga under the ESA, NMFS refused to list the whale under the those protections and instead, in 2000, chose the less rigorous protections afforded by a “depleted” listing under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
Cook Inletkeeper and others participated considerably during the drafting of the required conservation plan to accompany the “depleted” listing, submitting comments outlining need to address non-hunting impacts on the whales, such as pollution, noise, oil and gas development, aviation impacts, sewage, military activities, coastal development, prey availability and others. It took until 2006 for NMFS to finally publish the first draft of the MMPA conservation plan, and by that time the Cook Inlet beluga numbers were at an all-time low of 278 individual whales remaining.
With the final MMPA conservation plan not even finalized, the 2006 population estimate was alarming enough that Cook Inletkeeper joined others to petition NMFS to initiate a status review for listing the beluga under the ESA. The petition was successful, and in April 2007 NMFS finally opened public comment to determine whether the Cook Inlet beluga whale should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The ESA generally requires that proposed listings are finalized within one year of a proposal. After an extension of the comment period in 2007, NMFS attempted to delay the process based on the fact that two sequential annual surveys had returned estimates that they surmised indicated an upwards trend. In 2008, Cook Inletkeeper and others sued NMFS in federal District Court to force NMFS to follow the law and finalize the beluga whale ESA listing.
On October 22, 2008, the final rule was published listing the Cook Inlet beluga whale as Endangered under the ESA. This protection prohibits certain activities that directly or indirectly affect this population, and requires federal agencies to consult with NMFS to ensure that activities they authorize, fund or conduct will not jeopardize the species or destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. Actions that federal agencies conduct or authorize are widespread, and include many of the permits and authorizations required for coastal development, oil and gas development and operations, and sewage outfall.
Critical Habitat and Recovery Plan
After a species is listed under the ESA, the federal agency is required to designate critical habitat. For the Cook Inlet beluga, this would add administrative protections to the areas where whales feed, mate give birth and rear their young. The final designation, established in 2011, covers just over 3,000 square miles on the west shore of Cook Inlet, Kachemak Bay and Upper Cook Inlet. NMFS excluded some beluga habitat near the Port of Anchorage and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, citing national security and existing management plans that addressed beluga protection.
Since 2010, a Recovery Team made up of two voluntary panels – the Science Panel and the Stakeholder Panel – have met periodically to develop a recovery plan for the beluga. Cook Inletkeeper is participating on the Stakeholder Panel and actively advocates for creating and implementing a plan to help the beluga population rebound.
Seismic Exploration / Litigation
Despite being listed as Endangered, several activities continue to be authorized that could adversely affect the beluga population in Cook Inlet. A recent renewal of interest in developing new sources of oil and gas in Cook Inlet have 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.
Inletkeeper continues to press state and federal resource managers to implement strategies to help the beluga population rebound. These strategies may include addressing the negative effects of seismic exploration in beluga habitat; identifying and eliminating contaminant sources such as those from the Cook Inlet oil and gas industry, road runoff, sewage and jet fuel; advocating for additional research of Cook Inlet beluga birthing and mortality rates; and increased surveying in order to be able to react to declines in a timely manner.
Inletkeeper Beluga Blog Posts:
Cook Inlet Beluga Whale - 5 Years on the Endangered Species List
NOAA Fisheries: Cook Inlet Beluga Whales: All documents related to the MMPA listing, ESA listing, critical habitat designation and subsistence harvest management plans.