January brought some disappointing news for Cook Inlet belugas when scientists from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center announced the 2011 estimate for the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population. The estimate numbered only 284 animals, almost 20 percent lower than last year’s estimate of 340 whales. The number is the second-lowest since NOAA’s surveys began in 1993; the lowest was in 2005, when the estimate was 278 whales.
Cook Inlet belugas represent one of Alaska’s five beluga populations. Separated from the others by the Alaska Peninsula, the geographic barrier makes the Cook Inlet belugas genetically distinct from the state’s other beluga whales, and therefore particularly vulnerable to population loss. The whale was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, and last April, the Obama administration designated critical habitat for the species. But despite these protections, the Cook Inlet population has failed to recover, and a 20 percent loss of the population could be a devastating blow.
The low numbers are alarming. And since these whales live in one of the most populated–and fastest growing–regions in Alaska, survival won’t get any easier.
Scientists aren’t convinced the low estimate is entirely accurate. The count is taken from a small airplane that flies above the inlet, with live sightings compared to video footage taken at the same time. Different sighting or survey conditions, weather, or changes in beluga behavior or distribution from year to year can affect the survey results.
Still, the low numbers are alarming. And since these whales live in one of the most populated–and fastest growing–regions in Alaska, survival won’t get any easier. Defenders is committed to helping Cook Inlet beluga whales recover. We garnered record support for the whale’s endangered listing and critical habitat designation, and Alaska director Karla Dutton currently serves on the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Team for the National Marine Fisheries Service, working on a recovery plan for this unique “canary of the sea.”
You can help Cook Inlet beluga whales too! Click here for more information on how to become a trained citizen scientist for the Anchorage Coastal Beluga Survey.