Beluga whales are known as the "canaries of the seas" for their melodious and wondrous vocalizations. Today Cook Inlet beluga whales have something truly beautiful to sing about: the National Marine Fisheries Service announced its proposal to permanently designate critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whale under the Endangered Species Act. Click here to read the press release issued by Cook Inletkeeper, NRDC and others applauding the agency's reliance on science over politics. (And by politics, I mean the State of Alaska's threat to sue the federal government in order to overturn endangered species protections for the Cook Inlet beluga whale. Fortunately, no lawsuit has been filed yet.)
While there are four other beluga whale populations in Alaska, the Cook Inlet beluga whale is genetically unique and geographically isolated to waters in and around Anchorage, Alaska. There are also only about 300 to 400 of them left.
Over the past 20 years, their population has declined from 1,300 to less than 400. Cook Inlet belugas live in one of the most populated and industrialized regions in Alaska, where their health and habitat is continuously threatened by the devastating effects of development and pollution. Key threats to their habitat include the Port of Anchorage expansion, oil and gas exploration and production, and the discharge of partially treated sewage from Anchorage's sewage treatment plant. Other proposals for development - such as proposals for the Knik Arm Bridge, the Chuitna coal strip mine and a port for Pebble mine in Iniskin Bay - also threaten essential Cook Inlet beluga habitat.
Noise pollution resulting from these development activities and vessel traffic can cause direct and sometimes lethal injuries to Cook Inlet beluga whales, such as strandings, chronic hearing injuries, avoidance behavior, and stress that can cause the whales to stop eating and breeding, threatening the survival of the species.
Protecting the Cook Inlet beluga's habitat is crucial to their survival, which is why the Fisheries Service's proposed rule to designate more than 3,000 square miles of their habitat for permanent protection is so important. Once habitat is designated, federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions that may "adversely modify" it. By protecting their habitat, the highly imperiled Cook Inlet beluga may finally have a chance for recovery. And that is something worth singing about.