The Cook Inlet beluga whale is a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population with numbers that have plummeted by more than 50 percent in the past decade. Their status has become so perilous that in 2006 the scientific experts at the World Conservation Union (IUCN) placed the Cook Inlet beluga on its Red List for critically threatened species. The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission repeatedly requested that the Fisheries Service list the species under the Endangered Species Act.
"This was no fluke. The science is crystal clear in this case," said Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's Endangered Species Program. "In the end, the science was so strong that the Bush administration had to make this announcement. We are glad to finally see it become a reality so that protections can be put in place before it is too late."
NRDC was part of a consortium of conservation groups that have sued to put an end to delays by the Bush administration in making this designation. Recent surveys show that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population now hovers around 375 animals, down from the Fisheries Service's estimated population of approximately 1,300 whales in the early 1990s.
Cook Inlet is the most populated and fastest-growing watershed in Alaska. Oil and gas dumping, sewage discharges, contaminated runoff, regular shipping and pipeline spills, and rising pollution levels threaten the beluga whale and their habitat. Furthermore, several massive infrastructure projects, including the proposed Knik Arm Bridge, the Port of Anchorage expansion, the Chuitna coal strip mine, and the Port MacKenzie expansion, will directly impact some of the whale's most important habitat. The listing will ensure that developers and scientists work together to avoid further population declines.
Cook Inlet is a unique setting that supports the southernmost of Alaska's five beluga populations. The area offers a true estuary environment that is very different from the beluga habitats to the north. According to the Fisheries Service, no similar habitats exist in Alaska or anywhere else in the United States.
The groups petitioning for the Endangered Species Act listing are: Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Center for the Environment, National Audubon Society - Alaska State Office, North Gulf Oceanic Society, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, and Sylvia Brunner, PhD. Petitioners are represented by the nonprofit law firm Trustees for Alaska.