Cook Inlet belugas are the most isolated and genetically distinct of Alaska’s five beluga populations, separated from the others by the geographic barrier of the Alaska Peninsula for over 10,000 years. Their previous range had been most or all of Cook Inlet, but today that range is much smaller. Moreover, these whales are unique in that they live next to one of the most populated and fastest growing regions in Alaska: Anchorage.
Why They’re Important
Beluga whales eat whatever marine species are most common each season including salmon, tomcod, smelt, char, rainbow sole, whitefish, saffron and arctic cod, herring, shrimp, and mussels and thus play an important role in the health of the overall ecosystem. They are also one of Alaska’s most well-known marine animals and a key draw for tourists in the state.
While we still do not know for sure what is affecting the Cook Inlet beluga population, Defenders continues to work with scientists to study the effects of sewage and polluted run-off that pours directly into the beluga’s home. There are also development projects being planned that propose to fill in over 135 acres of beluga whale habitat. The region’s oil industry is also expanding so we need to remain vigilant to safeguard this fragile population from the potential impacts of toxic waste, spills and seismic blasting.
What Defenders is Doing to Help Cook Inlet Beluga Whales
Defenders currently serves on the National Marine Fisheries Service Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery team. The team was formed in March 2010 and is charged with preparing the Recovery Plan for the whales. The plan is expected to be released for public review in 2013.
Since 2006 Defenders has also been part of a coalition of local and national conservation groups, concerned citizens and scientists that successfully worked to get the Cook Inlet beluga whale listed as endangered in 2007. We were part of the coalition that successfully fought the state of Alaska in the courts as it tried to strip the whale’s protections.
Defenders also helped to fund and launch the Anchorage Coastal Beluga Survey (ACBS) in 2008, which trains citizen scientists each spring to collect land-based data on whale populations that is shared with NMFS.
Much work remains to identify the reasons for the decline of beluga whale numbers. Additionally, we still need to educate people who live in and around the Inlet and those who visit it about the importance of the beluga whale and how to live with the protections that have been put in place.