Cook Inlet Beluga Whale
January 15, 2010: Critical Habitat for the Cook Inlet Beluga!
Once numbering over 1300 strong, the Cook Inlet beluga whale population has dwindled down to a mere 300 or less of these very friendly creatures. This decline has been happening for many years now; even after all the latest attempts to turn this decline around, the beluga whale population in Cook Inlet continues to decline.
Our family history with the beluga whales of Cook Inlet:
We moved to Kenai from Anchorage when my wife was transferred to the Tesoro Refinery in the summer of 1991. At that time our oldest son was just 2 years old and we had just recently found that she was pregnant with our youngest.
One of our families favorite past times quickly became watching the beluga whales from the mouth of the Kenai River as well as from the access area at the Warren Ames Bridge. This became a Sunday ritual with our family long after our first summer in Kenai. After Sunday service, we would pick up some sandwiches and head off to the Kenai River to watch the whales and commercial fishing operations that was simultaneously going on in the inlet. The two seemed so at peace with one another at that time.
As the years passed by, the number of beluga whales returning to the river was steadily decreasing until recently when the beluga all but disappeared in the river. We haven’t personally seen the beluga whales in the river for a few years now. This past summer we were excited to spot a couple of them along Cook Inlet near the Tesoro refinery.
We are saddened by the depleted numbers of beluga whales and have only recently come to realize that we no longer see the orca whales at the mouth of the Kenai either. We have fond memories of watching both the beluga whales and the orcas following the salmon into the river from a lookout up on the bluff above the river in Kenai.
What's Happening Today In Cook Inlet
Do the declining numbers of beluga whales indicate the Cook Inlet ecosystem is in trouble? The federal government listed the Cook Inlet belugas as endangered in October 2008. Local lawmakers in Kenai have been meeting for the past two months to discuss the affects of the proposed critical habitat might have on the local oil and gas exploration, drilling and commercial fishing. The National Marine Fisheries Service is planning public hearing which will enable individuals to submit comments to NOAA Fisheries.
The critical habit areas were chosen where the whales are found to concentrate bringing them close to the mouths of creeks and rivers or near mud flats or close to the shoreline along the Cook Inlet. These areas include the area surrounding the Port of Anchorage, Turnagain Arm, Hope, the mouth of the Kenai River as a portion of Kachemak Bay near Homer.
The public hearing is tentatively planned to be held February 3rd at the Kenai Borough Assembly Chambers in Soldotna Alaska. Public comments on the proposed Cook Inlet Beluga Whale critical habitat will be accepted until early March. For the most up to date information on public hearing schedule, be sure to visit the NOAA fisheries web site.
The critical habitat should not affect either commercial or sport fishing as they are being managed on the state level. A representative of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Kenai also reports that the issue of discharges at the platforms in the inlet would not be included as potential impact. He reports that the effect to the oil and natural gas platforms would include only areas that involve the federal government.
It is our belief that the evidence shows that the beluga whales in the Cook Inlet need protection and we support paying attention to this critical situation.
February 3, 2010
What will be the effect if the Cook Inlet beluga whales become extinct and how will it affect the environment?
The marine ecosystem, as in all types of ecosystems, is a collection of interdependent parts. Therefore, all elements, including the beluga whales, of an ecosystem are important in order to maintain its stability.
The extinction of one species can have unforeseen effects thus causing further extinction’s. This is often referred to as “the chains of extinction".
If we want to act in the best interests of the long-term sustainability of Cook Inlet, we would all be working hard to safeguard all the marine life. This will not only protect the beluga whale, but the whole ecosystem, including the halibut and salmon that depend upon it.
If pollution is the cause: Then the Beluga just may be the first in a chain of collapses. Other species may also be in peril and it's just the beluga that has been recognized at this time.
If disease is found to be at fault: This would need to be isolated as soon as possible to protect the remaining marine environment of Cook Inlet.
If shipping traffic is to blame: Measures would need to be adopted to protect the whales from any further declines associated with shipping traffic.
If noise to include seismic testing is a reason: Already known to be a source of concern in other areas, whales and other marine mammals do not seem to adapt to the noises from industrial noise pollution as well as seismic testing. Workarounds would need to be found to allow the two to coexist in the inlet.
What if human-induced habitat changes are found to be the source: Commercial fishing nets and native whaling both have had an impact on the health of the Cook Inlet beluga whale populations in the past. The goal today must be to find the work around that will minimize the impact in an acceptable manor to all. Natives from Tyonek Native Corporation have already taken action to protect the beluga whales of Cook Inlet, let's follow their lead and do our part too.