Beluga whales have often been called the canaries of the sea. They chirp, they squeak, they whistle. It’s no wonder these curious white whales, with their small eyes, bulbous foreheads, and mouths turned slightly upward in a permanent smile, are immortalized in a famous children’s song: “Baby beluga in the deep blue sea, Swim so wild and you swim so free.”
But the beluga whales native to Alaska’s Cook Inlet hardly swim “so free” into the open ocean. A genetically distinct population, this region's belugas never stray from the 180-mile waterway that stretches south from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska, hugged closely by land on either side.
As a result, the Cook Inlet whales are continuously impacted by the many threats that overwhelm this industrialized area. Anchorage is one the biggest U.S. ports, heavily trafficked by massive oceangoing vessels. The city also has a pretty nasty sewage problem: Its barely treated wastewater is discharged directly into Cook Inlet. Massive infrastructure projects are also underway, and oil and gas development is extensive. “The whales are getting hammered from a lot of different directions,” says Taryn Kiekow Heimer, a senior policy analyst for NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, “and there’s just nowhere for them to go.”
Since 1979, the Cook Inlet beluga population has plummeted from around 1,300 whales to roughly 300, a decline of more than 75 percent. And despite a halt on subsistence hunting and federal protections designed to help the whales rebound, their numbers seem to have more or less plateaued, with slight increases and decreases from year to year. NRDC helped secure those protections—an Endangered Species Act listing and a critical habitat designation, in 2008 and 2011, respectively. But their impacts have fallen short.
The critical habitat designation, “in theory, means there’s space in Cook Inlet that’s protected for them,” Heimer says. “In reality, what we’ve seen is a boom in oil and gas exploration and port development.”
One oil and gas company in particular posed a significant threat to the belugas. Back in 2012, the Houston-based Apache Corporation had acquired leases for some 850,000 acres in Cook Inlet, with plans to search for oil and gas deposits using seismic surveys. During this kind of exploration, compressed air is fired into the water to create a disturbance. By recording its reverberation, geophysicists can determine if deposits lie beneath the seabed.
That dynamite-like underwater noise is earsplitting—and life-threatening—for Cook Inlet belugas and other marine mammals that depend on sound to navigate, communicate, forage, and breed. The air guns can drown out whale calls over thousands of miles, and at close range they can cause permanent hearing loss and other serious injuries.
During seismic survey operations, companies blast those intense impulses every 10 to 12 seconds for up to 12 hours a day. What’s more, they do so with the blessing of the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, which authorizes each developer in the inlet to “take” (legalese for "harass," in this case) up to 30 beluga whales every year—a shocking one-tenth of the remaining Cook Inlet population.
In 2012, along with Alaska Native partners and two conservation groups, NRDC filed a lawsuit challenging Apache’s permit. The following year, a U.S. District Court in Alaska ruled that NMFS’s decision to authorize the company’s oil and gas exploration was in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But despite our apparent victory, Apache walked away with a slap on the wrist: The company could continue its seismic surveys, the judge determined; it just had to be smarter about doing so. That ruling was another reminder of the region’s generally pro-development stance; in 2010, the state of Alaska tried to remove the beluga from the Endangered Species List (and lost, thanks to NRDC and other groups).
Apache abandoned its operations in Cook Inlet in March 2016, but many other oil and gas companies are still surveying and drilling there, and those 300 endangered beluga whales are still struggling. But the lawsuits are over, at least for the moment. The focus of conservationists now is to encourage NMFS to take into consideration all of the factors that put pressure on Cook Inlet’s sea animals when making permitting decisions.
“When NMFS issues a permit, it only looks at one permit at a time,” Heimer explains. “Each one may not be deadly in and of itself, but it’s like death by a thousand cuts up there. Nobody’s really looking at the bigger picture.” Until they do, the whales will remain in serious trouble. They have a 25 percent probability of extinction within 100 years, and a 75 percent chance within 200 years. Without a major shift, it might soon be too late for Cook Inlet’s irreplaceable singing belugas.