Belugas facing threat of extinction

The threat of extinction for Cook Inlet’s beluga whales is real, and the estimated 300 sea mammals should be listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, National Marine Fisheries Service officials announced last week.

Population modeling indicates the whales face a better than one-in-four chance of extinction within a century, NMFS said.

“Based on the best available scientific and commercial information, we propose that the Cook Inlet beluga whale be listed under the ESA as an endangered species,” the agency said.

The long-anticipated announcement begins a lengthy process of establishing the rule listing the distinct population segment of belugas as endangered, which will include designating critical habitat within the inlet, and developing a recovery plan.

The decision comes in response to a petition filed with NMFS last April by several conservation organizations, including Cook Inletkeeper, the Alaska Center for the Environment and others.

“This decision will ultimately lead to more funding for the long-delayed research needed to ensure the Cook Inlet beluga has a fighting chance,” said Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inletkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization focused on the Cook Inlet watershed.

According to scientists who have studied the inlet whales, the beluga population, estimated in the 1980s at approximately 1,300, now hovers around 300. A 1999 petition resulted in the whales being listed as “depleted” under the less protective Marine Mammal Protection Act.

At the time, subsistence harvesting by Alaska Natives was thought to be a possible contributor to the decline, but severe restrictions on Native hunts over several years including three cancelled hunts in nine years have not produced the population rebound scientists expected, according to NMFS officials.

“The Endangered Species Act is our nation’s most effective law for wildlife protection and recovery,” said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Applying the tools of the ESA to the beluga recover is the best hope for this highly imperiled whale.”

NMFS is not ready to designate critical habitat yet, and is soliciting information on essential physical and biological features of Cook Inlet beluga habitat. Comments on the proposed rule must be received by the close of business June 19. Requests for public hearings must be made in writing by June 4.

In a 17-page report, NMFS said a risk analysis for the Cook Inlet whale led the agency to conclude the species is in danger of extinction throughout all of its range because of “present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of habitat or range; the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms … disease and/or predation (from killer whales); and other natural and manmade factors affecting its continued existence.”

According to NMFS, population modeling indicates “a probability of extinction (for what is considered the most realistic scenario) of 26 percent within the next 100 years.” That, NMFS said, “provides a strong justification for endangered status.”

The agency also concluded that there were no protective or conservation measures in place now that would substantially mitigate factors affecting the future viability and recovery of the whales.

The designation could lead to prohibitions and restrictions of certain activities in Cook Inlet and that has many people, including municipal governments and industry, concerned.