"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," said James Balsiger, acting assistant administrator for NOAA's Fisheries Service.
Photo courtesy NOAA
The beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), also known as the white whale, is related to the narwhal. Cook Inlet belugas are one of five populations of belugas recognized within U.S. waters. Other belugas inhabit Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea, and the Beaufort Sea. Canada also has beluga populations.
Beluga whale range in Alaska waters map courtesy NOAA
The Cook Inlet belugas are considered to be the most isolated of the five populations in Alaska, based on genetic differentiation and geographic distance between them and the other four populations.
Chart courtesy NOAA
Cook Inlet beluga numbers nearly halved between 1994 and 1998, based on annual scientific surveys. NOAA estimated the Cook Inlet beluga population at 375 for both 2007 and 2008.
"The recovery of the Cook Inlet whales is potentially hindered by strandings; continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet and the cumulative effects on important beluga habitat; oil and gas exploration, development, and production; industrial activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants; disease; and predation by killer whales," NOAA said in a written statement announcing the listing of the whale as an endangered species.
Scientists tagging a beluga whale in Cook Inlet near Anchorage. The whales can sometimes be seen from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.
Photo courtesy NOAA
In 2000, NOAA declared the Cook Inlet beluga population depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Between 1999 and 2006, Alaska Native hunters took a total of five Cook Inlet beluga whales for subsistence. No beluga whales were harvested in 2007 or 2008. Despite these restrictions on Alaskan Native subsistence harvest of Cook Inlet belugas, the population has not recovered.
The agency proposed in 2007 that Cook Inlet beluga whales be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Today's announcement is the result of NOAA's scientific review of the proposal.
Aerial photo of Beluga pod courtesy NOAA
Listing the Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered means any federal agency that funds, authorizes, or carries out new projects or activities that may affect the whales in the area must first consult with NOAA's Fisheries Service to determine the potential effects on the whales. A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.
Areas used by Cook Inlet belugas chart courtesy NOAA
The New York Times reports that the Alaska administration of Governor Sarah Palin, Republican nominee for Vice President in next month's U.S. Presidential election, opposed the beluga listing in part because of its potential to restrict coastal and offshore oil and gas development.
The beluga listing could also affect other projects, including the expansion of the port of Anchorage and a proposed bridge that would connect Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Ms. Palin's hometown, Wasilla, the Times said.
"I am especially concerned," the newspaper reported the governor said in a written statement in August 2007, when her administration submitted documents to fight the listing, "that an unnecessary federal listing and designation of critical habitat would do serious long-term damage to the vibrant economy of the Cook Inlet area."
The Los Angeles Times reports Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group that supported the petition for the beluga listing, saying that the proposed bridge "is perhaps the single biggest threat to the beluga as it would block a key feeding area, not to mention the noise from pile driving and the risk of spills from the bridge."
NOAA divided Cook Inlet into three regions based upon patterns of beluga habitat use, shown in the agency's map above. Type 1 habitat includes habitats with documented intensive beluga use from spring through fall, and which are important feeding and nursery habitats -- clearly the most valuable of the three types based on the frequency of use by Cook Inlet belugas. Type 1 habitat also includes the waters around Anchorage.
Type 2 habitat is based on less concentrated spring and summer beluga use, and known fall and winter use areas.
Type 3 habitat encompasses the remaining portions of Cook Inlet.
NOAA said it will identify habitat essential to the conservation of Cook Inlet belugas in a separate rule-making within a year.