Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that Alaska’s Cook Inlet beluga whale habitat will be federally protected. The final rule designates more than 3,000 square miles of the Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the highly endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale – a genetically unique and geographically isolated population of belugas in southwest Alaska.
Over the past 20 years, the population of Cook Inlet beluga whales has plummeted from 1,300 to around 340.
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. Ship strikes, noise pollution and industrialization infringing on their habitat are all factors in their dwindling numbers.
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 a port for Pebble Mine in Iniskin Bay - also threaten these endangered whales.
NRDC and other environmental groups have been fighting for years to ensure protection for Cook Inlet beluga whales. In April 2006, we petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Act due to continuing population declines.
After much delay (and legal prompting), the Fisheries Service finally listed the Cook Inlet beluga whale as endangered in April 2008. (NRDC members and activists alone sent over 118,000 letters to NMFS supporting the endangered species designation.) After more delay (and legal prompting), today the Fisheries Service issued critical habitat designation. (Again, tens of thousands of NRDC members and activists sent petitions asking to protect this critical habitat.)
Protecting the Cook Inlet beluga's habitat is crucial to their survival. Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions that may "adversely modify" critical habitat.
And critical habitat protection gives the highly imperiled Cook Inlet beluga a fighting chance for recovery. This is a victory for belugas.
Unfortunately, the battle is far from over. Cook Inlet beluga whales are the latest casualty in the State of Alaska’s war against wildlife. Last year, the State of Alaska filed a lawsuit challenging their endangered status. NRDC and other groups intervened in the lawsuit and are currently fighting to protect these endangered belugas.