At Last, Feds Have ‘Roadmap’ To Save Cook Inlet Belugas

(CN) – The plight of a declining population of endangered Alaskan beluga whales has finally spurred federal marine officials to announce a recovery plan for them.

“This plan is a roadmap for how NOAA Fisheries and our partners can address threats to Cook Inlet belugas and work together towards recovery,” the agency’s assistant regional administrator for protected resources, Jon Kurland, said.

Belugas are small white whales, averaging 13 feet in length. They have flexible necks and foreheads, and are perceived to be expressive and social. The Cook Inlet population is estimated to have only 340 remaining individuals, and the population has been in steady decline.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, listed the Cook Inlet belugas as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in October 2008, following a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to the agency’s own timeline, final recovery plans should be published within two and a half years of the species being listed as endangered.

“It amazes me that this recovery plan took so long to be completed, especially when the data show a continued decline in the belugas’ population,” the center’s marine ecologist Abel Valdivia said. “NOAA Fisheries and its partners must address the threats to these whales and quickly implement the recommended recovery actions laid out in the plan before Cook Inlet beluga whales go extinct.”

The agency designated the Cook Inlet belugas as one of eight “Species in the Spotlight,” a nationwide initiative to address declining populations of marine species most at risk of extinction. These whales are “the most reproductively and demographically isolated of all the Alaskan belugas,” the agency noted, but they are surrounded by the densest human population area in Alaska.

According to the recovery plan, the belugas face 10 identified threats, which the agency has categorized as being of high, medium or low relative concern. High-level threats include catastrophic events – natural disasters, spills or mass strandings – cumulative effects of multiple stressors, and noise.

Medium-level threats include disease from pathogens, parasites and algal blooms, habitat loss or degradation, prey reduction, and unauthorized “take” – human-caused harm, capture, or fatality, such as illegal poaching, fishing net entanglements or boat strikes. Low-level threats include pollution, predation by killer whales and sharks, and subsistence hunting.

Although the agency acknowledges it does not know why these whales aren’t recovering, it has focused the recovery plan on high- and medium-level threat management. For each threat, the agency will attempt to learn how the threat is limiting recovery, which actions will improve management of the threat and which actions would eliminate or mitigate the threat. The plan is expected to change over time as continuing research provides additional information to aid in understanding why the recovery has been stalled.

“Beluga whales are magnificent marine mammals that are suffering death by a thousand cuts in the waters of the heavily urbanized Cook Inlet in Alaska,” Valdivia said. “The finalization of this overdue recovery plan under the Endangered Species Act provides us with a roadmap to increase the numbers of this dwindling population.”

Human-caused ocean noise, one of the high-level threats to these whales, is an issue that has garnered increased attention from the agency and the public in recent years. However, the recovery plan is thin on specific steps that can be taken to reduce noise from oil and gas activities, coastal development and vessel traffic.

While capture to stock aquariums and entertainment parks is an issue for other populations of belugas, it is not considered a threat for the Cook Inlet belugas. But some have died as the result of capture and tagging activities for research.

The population of Cook Inlet belugas declined 50 percent between 1994 and 1998 due in part to unregulated subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives. Despite a “dramatic reduction” in the subsistence hunt beginning in 1999, the whale population did not rebound as expected, according to the agency. Subsistence hunting is now regulated and reviewed on a regular basis, and is considered to be a low priority threat according to the recovery plan.

The plan also specifies criteria to be met for the eventual downlisting from endangered to threatened status, and for the eventual delisting, or removal, from the federal list of endangered or threatened species. The agency estimates that it may take two generations – 50 years – to fully recover this population.