Beluga Whales In Cook Inlet See Slight Growth In Numbers
January 7, 2013

Cook Inlet Beluga Population Makes Modest Gains, But Still Faces Extinction

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The endangered beluga whales that make their home in Cook Inlet are not recovering, leaving federal conservation experts unsure as to why and fearing that the species may soon face extinction.

According to the Associated Press (AP), a survey conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in June found that an estimated 312 belugas were living in the waters near Anchorage, Alaska -- a modest increase from the 284 whales estimated to live there in 2011.

"Cook Inlet belugas, considered genetically distinct, have been struggling and in decline for years," the wire service said. They have been listed as an endangered species under the US Endangered Species Act since 2008, and over the past decade the population has ranged from a low of 278 to a high of 366.

NOAA explained that the additional 28 whales did not represent a scientifically significant increase. However, they emphasize that the annual changes in population estimates were not as important as long-term trends, as the yearly survey can vary based on weather conditions, whale behavior, or other factors.

"The overall population trend for the past 10 years for Cook Inlet beluga whales shows them not recovering and still in decline at an annual average rate of 0.6 percent, indicating these whales are still in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future," the group said in a statement.

However, the most recent survey did spot some belugas venturing into what is essentially new territory.

"A group of belugas was observed just offshore of West Foreland swimming north into upper Cook Inlet. Beluga whales have not been observed in this area during our surveys since 2001," said NOAA scientist Kim Shelden, who headed up the survey.

"This group of 12 to 21 whales then moved into Trading Bay where they remained for the duration of the survey, not far from the mouth of the McArthur River. Groups of this size have not been seen during our beluga whale surveys south of North Foreland since 1995," Shelden added.

NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle told the AP that the group was working on a recovery plan for the whales, which numbered more than 1,200 during the 1980s. Scientists, conservationists, citizen organizations, Alaska Natives, and oil and gas development groups would all participate, and the plan is expected to be completed by late spring.

"The state of Alaska fought the endangered species listing, saying it would hurt economic development at the Port of Anchorage, as well as oil and natural gas development in nearby waters," the news organization added. "A federal judge last year affirmed the listing."