Feds release plan to stem decline of Cook Inlet belugas

A beluga whale fluke in Cook Inlet. NOAA Fisheries has included belugas on their list of the eight most threatened species the agency monitors. (Photo courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released its final plan to increase the population of Cook Inlet’s beluga whales and get them off the endangered species list.

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Biologists estimate there are now about 340 belugas in Cook Inlet, down from more than a thousand in the 1980s. Researchers think the population dropped steeply in the 1990s because of unregulated subsistence hunting, but the whales haven’t bounced back since hunting was curtailed in 1999.

Mandy Migura, of NOAA Fisheries, said nobody knows why.

“There is no clear explanation and no obvious single threat that is preventing this population’s recovery,” Migura said. “It’s likely that it’s a combination of multiple factors.”

The recovery plan lists ten of those potential factors, which it said should be limited. One potential threat is noise from human activity in Cook Inlet, which is home to some the state’s largest population centers, including Anchorage.

Migura said the Cook Inlet belugas, which are present year round, are genetically distinct from Alaska’s other beluga populations. The population was listed as endangered in 2008, and NOAA Fisheries has included belugas on their list of the eight most threatened species that the agency monitors.

Bruce Dale, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, said the recovery plan’s goals are either too vague or too difficult to measure — making it nearly impossible to get belugas off the endangered species list.

“And when you have them unnecessarily on the list, then other activities in the Inlet are restricted, unnecessarily,” Dale said.

That includes activities like oil and gas exploration, coastal development or commercial and recreational fishing.

The environmental group Cook Inletkeeper, which first petitioned to list belugas under the Endangered Species Act, said the plan doesn’t go far enough. Advocacy director Bob Shavelson said the fact that no one knows what’s causing the decline is reason for more caution. He’d like to see further restrictions placed on industry and municipal activities that could be affecting the species.

“It’s more of the same,” Shavelson said of the new recovery plan. “You’re not going to see these hard and fast rules that we believe are necessary to truly provide a platform for the beluga to improve.”

The recovery plan itself does not include new regulations, but federal agencies must take the plan into account when permitting activity in the Inlet.