NOAA Report Shows Slight Increase In Cook Inlet Beluga Population

A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a slight increase in the Cook Inlet Beluga whale population. But, the whales haven’t bounced back as fast as scientists hoped when they were placed on the endangered species list in 2008.

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The latest survey from June of last year showed 340 Cook Inlet Beluga whales. More than the 312 that were counted during the last survey in 2012, but still not as many as researchers would like to see.

Beluga close-up, photo from NOAA, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
Beluga close-up, photo from NOAA, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

“It hasn’t declined drastically, but it also hasn’t begun to recover, which I think is an issue of concern,” Dr. Rod Hobbs, a research biologist working out of Seattle, said.

You’ll find his name on about two decades’ worth of Cook Inlet Beluga abundance studies. Unsustainable subsistence harvests from the 90’s have been pointed to as the main culprit in the population drop off. And Hobbs says tighter regulations since 2005 seem to have helped curb the decline at least a little.

“The population at the end of the period of unrestricted hunting was around 350 whales and it has not increased from that,” Hobbs said.

He says they expected a rebound after the hunt was closed. But that hasn’t happened. And in fact, a gradual decline has continued, averaging about one percent a year.

“And when we project the population into the future using a fairly complicated population model, it appears there’s a pretty significant risk of that population going extinct,” Hobbs said.

So there are clearly other variables posing a risk to the beluga population. It’s not all due to over hunting. What those other risks are? Well, they’re still working on it. A recovery outline was put together in 2010 as part of the endangered species listing. It named four threats to Belugas: over harvest, killer whales, mass strandings and the big one: anthropogenic noise from coastal development in Cook Inlet. Put another way, noisy stuff humans are doing. That could be making it more difficult for the whales to communicate and, by extension, survive. Hobbs says Cook Inlet is a pretty noisy place to begin with, but it’s only gotten louder the past few years with a dramatic uptick in oil and gas development. NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service have spent several years working on a final recovery plan. It’s going through internal reviews right now, and should be released by this summer.