(CN) — The beluga whale is sometimes called the “sea canary” because it is one of the most vocal of all marine mammals. Its stark white skin and globular head make it an unmistakable creature patrolling the cold Arctic waters around Alaska and Canada.
But a certain cohort of whales in the Cook Inlet, which abuts Alaska’s capital city of Anchorage, is foundering. The stark population decline prompted several Alaska-based wildlife advocacy organizations to file a legal petition to induce the National Marine Fisheries Service to explore whether allowing a certain number of incidental deaths of the animals in connection to oil and gas development in the region should be tolerated.
The Alaska Wildlife Alliance and the Cook Inletkeeper filed a legal petition with the fisheries service asking the agency to eliminate the “take” authorizations that allow a certain number of beluga whales to be harmed by oil and gas development operators active in the Cook Inlet.
“For the past three years, the federal government has, astoundingly, authorized each member of this tiny, struggling population of Cook Inlet beluga whales to be harassed over 80 times,” said Nicole Schmitt, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. “Before the fisheries service authorizes any more harassment, we simply ask that they take a comprehensive look at their cumulative effects and make informed decisions about how much harassment this imperiled population can actually sustain each year.”
When the Marine Mammal Protection Act took effect in 1972, the beluga whales, which are subjected to subsistence hunting practices in the region, were already imperiled, with the population count hovering around 1,300 animals.
The population declined precipitously in the 1990s before hunting practices were outlawed, but that ban has made little difference as the population level has continued to dwindle to its current level. It is estimated about 280 individuals inhabit their historic range in Alaska’s most populous and most commercially active watershed.
Wildlife advocates say all of the commercial activity in the Cook Inlet has led to the stark decline in the species abundance in the watershed.
“Regardless of their endangered status, this population continues to decline while the oil and gas industry and others are permitted to harm and harass these whales to extinction,” said Liz Mering of Cook Inletkeeper.
The petition asks the fisheries service to put a cap on incidental takes of belugas in the Cook Inlet, which they propose should be set at zero until proper scientific studies can ascertain what is causing the species decline.
“In its own 2016 recovery plan for Cook Inlet belugas, the fisheries service highlighted the threat of cumulative impacts to belugas and recommended a reassessment of how take authorizations are permitted, and yet here we are five years later with a population still in decline, an agency rubber-stamping a massive number of take authorizations, and no reevaluation of the system in sight,” said CT Harry, senior marine campaigner and staff scientist at the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Others argue the economic activity in the Cook Inlet, including oil and gas development as well as shipping, inevitably means beluga whales and other marine mammals are going to take to calmer waters, of which there are plenty.
There are four other stocks of beluga whales in Alaskan waters, including in the Beaufort Sea, the Eastern Bering Sea, the Eastern Chukchi Sea and Bristol Bay. In an indication of how complex marine ecology in Alaska is, Bristol Bay is also threatened by natural resource extraction projects, as a coalition of environmental groups and Alaska Native tribes have been fighting the development of the Pebble Mine, which they argue could threaten the ecology that affords one of the world’s largest salmon fisheries as well as prime beluga whale habitat.
Legal petitions are one of the means by which wildlife organizations can ask the fisheries service, or their terrestrial counterpart the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to consider management plans to protect various endangered species.
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