By Naomi Klouda
The beluga whale population in Cook Inlet remains troubled, with numbers hovering at about 375 members of a genetically distinct group that formerly numbered at about 1,300.
In response, marine mammal experts and conservation groups have renewed their calls for the Bush administration to immediately list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
John Schoen, senior scientist at Audubon-Alaska, said he’s expecting a decision after Oct. 20.
“At that point, the National Marine Fisheries Service could rule whether the beluga in Cook Inlet should be listed as threatened or endangered.”
An endangered or threatened status would put three advantageous factors to work for the beluga, Schoen said.
NMFS would be required to do a recovery plan and spell out exactly what research and monitoring would be involved. The agency would be required to develop a recovery plan.
“The second factor is that if critical habitat is defined, then any activity will require consultation with NMFS, and the third issue is that being listed will bring more money for research and monitoring,” Schoen said.
Only the science and protections offered by the endangered status would provide a safety net to help this group of beluga escape extinction, stated marine mammal scientist Craig Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, in a press release.
Cook Inlet is the most heavily used waterway in Alaska. It is the route for major shipping freight coming into Anchorage and communities beyond. Oil rigs and spills have stressed the waterway, Schoen said.
“It’s no one cause, but an accumulation of activities with all the things going on in Cook Inlet,” he said.
Other factors threatening beluga whales are not manmade problems, but stress that can put the population in danger, such as strandings in Turnagain Arm.
“Any kind of a natural catastrophe, like a killer whale predation or a stranding, plus all the human-caused issues, can push the beluga population to the brink,” he said.
After conservation groups petitioned to list the population as endangered, NMFS had one year to determine whether to do so. NMFS extended that deadline six months (until Oct. 20) at the request of Gov. Sarah Palin’s administration, which claimed the 2007 survey data showed an upward increase in the population. That, therefore, made the listing unwarranted. NMFS’s recent survey results demonstrate there is no upward population trend.
Beluga concentrate in the Susitna and Chickaloon Flats during the summer. Up to 90 percent of them can be in those places, making it “habitat we would want to be very cautious of,” Schoen said.
Beluga populations in the Bristol Bay and the Beauford Sea are healthy, but the Cook Inlet mammals remain distinct from them and geographically isolated. If more protections aren’t put in place, scientists are concerned it won’t take long for the beluga to become extinct in Cook Inlet.
The aerial surveys were taken June 3-12 by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service scientists, where the belugas had congregated by the Susitna and Little Susitna Rivers, Knik Arm and Chickaloon Bay. They also took photographs and video. After examining the images, and from the manual count, observers said the population estimate remained the same as last year — about 375.
Alaska Native groups have been allowed to hunt the whales under co-management agreements with NOAA’s Fisheries Service, with restrictions on how many can be taken. Between 1999 and 2007, hunters took five beluga whales for subsistence, down from 308 in 1995 and 1998. There was no subsistence hunt for belugas in 2008.
Schoen said he expects there will be opposition to listing Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered by Gov. Palin, similar to her administration’s actions against the polar bear listing. The effort to deny the need for an ESA listing, “is part of a larger trend in Alaska government to overrule science that contradicts political ideology,” Schoen said.
Schoen said that listing belugas as endangered won’t stop industry along Cook Inlet.
“But it takes a good look at that activity and tries to mitigate harm. It most certainly won’t stop all economic development in Cook Inlet,” Schoen said.
The organizations listed as petitioning to place the beluga as endangered are: Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Center for the Environment, the National Audubon Society, the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and the Natural Resource Defense Council, among others.