Scientists Search For Reason Of Cook Inlet Beluga Decline

Scientists studying Cook Inlet Belugas have watched the dramatic decline of their numbers from 1,300 in the 1970s to only 300 now.

Biologists, state and federal officials, commercial fishermen and oil and gas developers all speculate about why the belugas haven’t rebounded after they were put on the endangered species list in 2008. But there are no concrete answers.

Photo: NMFS National Marine Mammal Laboratory

David Martin is the President of the Cook Inlet Drift Association or UCDA. Martin has been fishing in Cook Inlet for more than 40 years. He thinks food availability for the whales isn’t the issue, saying there is plenty of salmon and eulachon for them to eat. He thinks the decline started with over harvest by subsistence hunters in the 1990s that took the animals too far down.

“And in that same time frame the orca whales, which feed on belugas were increasing in numbers, and the combination of the two, I think have kept the beluga numbers at a low level,” Martin said.

But National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Barbara Mahoney says while there are records of some predation by orcas on beluga whales, there’s nothing that indicates it happens frequently. Instead, NMFS is looking into a wide range of other possible causes of the Beluga’s decline, including industrial development in the inlet that causes noise and possible habitat impacts during calving time. She says they have studied pollutants in the whales bodies but the tests don’t point to a smoking gun.

“For most of the contaminant load study, they are lower than the healthy population in the Chukchi Sea belugas,” Mahoney said.

Bob Shavelson is the advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper. He says contaminant tests need to search for drugs being flushed down toilets and making their way into the bay.

“One of the concerns is what are called emerging pollutants and these are things like pharmaceuticals and birth control pills and Viagra and even in very, very low amounts these pollutants can have adverse effects on marine life,” Shavelson said.

Shavelson says the EPA’s secondary treatment exemption for the Anchorage Sewage system that allows the city to essentially screen out the solids and add chlorine to the effluent before discharging into the Inlet is a problem. He says the EPA should not treat Cook Inlet like an ocean.

“EPA has failed to characterize Cook Inlet as an estuary. An estuary is a place where fresh water and salt water meet, I mean clearly it meets a definition of an estuary, which brings about an entirely different set of rules, instead EPA says ‘oh no, it’s an ocean and as an ocean it can assimilate a lot more pollution.’ It all comes down to legal definitions and basically a predetermined outcome,” Shavelson said.

Shavelson also has concerns about toxins being dumped into the inlet from the oil and gas development industry. But Barbara Mahoney says all of the studies that have been conducted on Cook Inlet belugas and their environment are not conclusive and the reasons behind the lack of a rebound are just not clear.

“You know it’s a great mystery and I think everyone would like to have one point and say this is it and if we fix this we would have the animals recovered, recovering but it could be just a blend of possibilities of why. Everything adds a little more weight to why they can’t recover right now or maybe it’s just taking longer or there might be something that we don’t know at this time and we’re hoping to find out,” Mahoney said.

Funding is a problem and NFMS is working to get more money to investigate the belugas in greater detail. The annual survey results on the estimated numbers of the whales will be out in November. A new report looking at contaminant loads is also due later this year.

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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 24 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. 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