Karla Dutton, Alaska Program Director
Beluga whales have called Cook Inlet home for a long time – some say they’ve been here as long as 10,000 years. Stretching 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage, Cook Inlet provides them room to roam, but isolates them from beluga whales elsewhere. Of the five populations of beluga whales in U.S. waters, all found off the coast of Alaska, Cook Inlet belugas are the only population that is endangered.
Each summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducts aerial abundance estimate surveys over the Inlet in search of Cook Inlet beluga whales. Scientifically-trained observers on board the plane use wide angle and zoomed video to record belugas, then compare the two videos to determine how many whales may have been missed. Two other analysts also count whales from the plane – all of this to ensure that the count is as accurate as it can be. The data is analyzed at NOAA labs in Seattle, and the results tell us how many whales are living in Cook Inlet.
Last week, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center of NOAA announced its 2012 abundance estimate, or population number, for the Cook Inlet belugas. The estimated population for last year was 312 whales — slightly up from last year’s estimate of 284 whales. But even though the population increased this year, if you examine the past 10 years of population estimates as NOAA scientists do, you see a trend: the population is declining at an average of 0.6 percent each year. Considering how small the current population is, this trend could threaten the survival of Cook Inlet belugas.
But there is good news! During the 2012 survey, scientists found Cook Inlet belugas in a part of Cook Inlet where they haven’t been seen since 2001. “A group of belugas was observed just offshore of West Foreland swimming north into upper Cook Inlet,” said Kim Shelden, a NOAA scientist and the chief scientist for this survey. This could mean that the population is expanding further into Cook Inlet, and reclaiming more of the species’ historic range. Until recently, we have watched these whales occupy only a small part of their original range in the waters off of Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. It would be wonderful to see these whales traveling, feeding and raising their young in more diverse areas of Cook Inlet. If they spread out, it could reduce the chance of many whales being stranded when trying to escape predators like Orcas. It is too early to tell if this year’s survey means we’ll see Cook Inlet belugas expanding into their former range across more of the inlet or not, but good news is certainly welcome for a species already at risk.
Cook Inlet belugas were listed as an endangered species in 2008, and in 2011 NOAA designated two areas of Cook Inlet as their critical habitat, for a total of 3,016 square miles. Cook Inlet belugas are top predators in their food chain, which means that their decline could be a sign of a deeper problem in their ecosystem. To find out what’s affecting them, we have to look at their habitat, their food sources and availability, and many other issues including noise, pollution, fishing, ship traffic, disease and climate change. It is important that we learn what is keeping the beluga population from growing so that we can craft a plan to help them recover.
That’s where the Cook Inlet Recovery Plan process comes in. The process uses information in the National Marine Fisheries Service Conservation Plan, which determines that for a “healthy, viable population,” there need to be at least 780 belugas in Cook Inlet – a far cry from last year’s numbers, I’m afraid. This makes the work that we’re doing for Cook Inlet belugas all the more important.
I serve as the representative for Defenders on the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Team (CIBRT) Stakeholder Panel. Since March 2010 we have been working to help draft a recovery plan for Cook Inlet belugas. The draft plan will be shared with the public later this year, and the public will have a chance to review and comment on it, so stay tuned. We hope that this plan will help us find out why the belugas are not recovering, and provide us with a plan of action so that we can all work towards the successful recovery of this important and beloved species.
Our office provides field data collection equipment and outreach brochures for some of the 75 trained citizen scientists who collect shore-based observations of Cook Inlet belugas as part of the Anchorage Coastal Beluga Survey, which Defenders helped found in 2008 along with Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. The data from both of these research efforts helps fill in gaps and gets us closer to answering the question of why the Cook Inlet beluga population is not recovering. We’ll continue to work with scientists and the public to find a way to help these iconic whales recover and thrive in Cook Inlet once again.