Groups prod federal government to act on plan to save Cook Inlet beluga whales

A beluga whale and calf, seen from above
A Cook Inlet beluga whale mother and calf (Photo by Hollis Europe and Jacob Barbaro/NOAA Fisheries)

As Cook Inlet beluga whales continue to slide closer to extinction, a coalition of conservation groups petitioned the federal government this week to do more to save them.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has not made much progress in carrying out the recovery plan it created in 2016 to reverse the decline, the groups say.

“It’s been a little bit over five years now. And the population is is not recovering. In fact, it’s worse,” said CT Harry, with the Environmental Investigation Agency, a group behind the petition.

EIA has produced a report on the government’s efforts to help the whales. It’s titled “Five Years of Failure.”

Harry noted that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues to grant permits for activities in the inlet that emit noise or otherwise disturb the whales.

“The goal in our petition is to basically tell NOAA to follow their own advice by reevaluating how these harassment authorizations are permitted,” Harry said. “And to not look at each one on an individual basis, but to look at them on a cumulative basis to determine the cumulative stress impact of a multitude of threats.”

Cook Inlet belugas — the relatively small white whales that are sometimes seen from the Seward Highway and the Coastal Trail in downtown Anchorage — have been listed as endangered since 2008. They’ve declined about 80% since the late 1970s. The last subsistence harvest was in 2005, and still the slide continues. NOAA estimates that 279 individuals remain.

A statement from NOAA Fisheries says only that it’s aware of the petition and will review it carefully. But in previous interviews and on its website, the agency describes the whales’ decline as dire and confounding, despite lots of research. A video on NOAA’s website describes the challenges the whales face, living so close to Alaska’s largest city.

The threats “may include diminishing food, habitat loss or destruction, pollution, toxins and human caused noise which hampers their ability to feed and communicate,” says a video on NOAA Fisheries’ website. “Researchers are trying to understand which of these threats may be impacting them most.”

Of the thousands of beluga-harassment incidents the government has allowed in recent years, the vast majority are for research — some just to count or photograph the whales, but also for biopsies.

Liz Mering is at Cook Inletkeeper, another one of the groups behind the petition. She said the goal isn’t necessarily to block permits for the oil industry or port construction or research, but to get the government to figure out what it needs to do to prevent an extinction.

“I just can’t imagine living any other place where you can drive down the highway and see beluga whales out your window of your car,” she said. “It’s just such an incredible place and to lose them would be devastating, I think, for all of us who live in the Cook Inlet area.”

Cook Inlet belugas are a distinct genetic population that live in this one spot. The conservation groups and the scientists at NOAA Fisheries agree that if they disappear, others aren’t likely to take their place.

Alaska Public Media

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