Bad News for Belugas: Cook Inlet Population Plummeted 20 Percent in 2011

Co-written with Marine Mammals Program Assistant Lauren Packard

Today, NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center released its annual survey of endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales—and the findings don’t bode well for belugas.  The 2011 population estimate is 284, almost 20 percent lower than last year’s estimate.  The 2010 survey estimated 340 whales, while the 2009 survey estimated 321 whales. 

Sadly, the 2011 estimate is the second-lowest since NOAA began surveying Cook Inlet beluga whales in 1993.  (The lowest estimate was in 2005, when belugas numbered just six less than this year’s estimate.)

Over the past couple of decades, the number of Cook Inlet beluga whales has plummeted from 1,300 to just 284. 

That’s why NRDC and other environmental groups have been fighting for years to ensure protection for this iconic species, which is both genetically distinct and geographically isolated to Cook Inlet. In April 2006, we petitioned NOAA to list Cook Inlet belugas as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The government finally listed the Cook Inlet beluga whale as endangered in April 2008 and designated more than 3,000 square miles of the Cook Inlet as critical habitat essential to the whales’ survival.

And just last November, we won a major victory in federal court. A federal judge did the right thing by upholding the endangered species status of Cook Inlet beluga whales under the ESA, obstructing the State of Alaska’s ongoing anti-wildlife agenda.

The fact that the population continues to decline reiterates the fragile state of their health.  Ship strikes, noise pollution, and industrial development consistently threaten the health and habitat of Cook Inlet beluga whales.  Oil and gas drilling activities—which use air guns to deploy some of the loudest manmade sounds—are flooding beluga whales with a cacophony of underwater noise pollution. Another proposal – the Pebble Mine – would require the construction of a new deepwater port, marine terminal, and slurry pipelines in designated critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Click here to take action and help protect Cook Inlet beluga whales.