Cook Inlet Beluga Population Estimate Lower Than Previous Year

National Marine Fisheries Service scientists released the 2011 population estimate for Cook Inlet Belugas today. The current number is 284 whales, nearly 20% less than last year’s estimate of 340. But although 20% may sound like a dramatic decrease, so little seems to be known about the belugas that it’s difficult to know how significant the number may be.

Rod Hobbs works in the National Marine Mammal lab in Seattle. Hobbs designed the aerial survey that takes place in Cook Inlet each year and has been researching the Cook Inlet population of belugas for nearly two decades. He says the numbers are in a slow decline.

“But it doesn’t seem to be a large decline. It seems to be a continued, slow decline that we’ve seen for the last 10 years, since the end of the major subsistence harvest period.”

It’s not known why the belugas do not appear to be recovering. They are no longer hunted, but concerns about depleted food supplies, pollution from sewage and street run off from Anchorage, oil development and vessel traffic have been highlighted as adding stress to the whales. The Cook Inlet Beluga were listed as endangered in 2008 and critical habitat has been designated. There is a recovery team working on a plan to try to turn the population numbers around. In the 1980s, there were around 1300 belugas in Cook Inlet.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 18 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications with veteran Alaskan broadcasters Nellie Moore, D’Anne Hamilton, Len Anderson, Sharon McConnell and Veronica Iya. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori