For Immediate Release, April 1 4, 2009
Contact: Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity (760) 366-2232
Cook Inlet Beluga Whale on Track to Gain Habitat Protection:
Federal Agency Begins Overdue Critical Habitat
Designation Process for Endangered Whale
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The federal National Marine Fisheries Service today took the first steps towards protecting critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the Cook Inlet beluga whale in Alaska. In October 2008 the Fisheries Service listed the whale as endangered. The listing occurred following petitions and litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations.
However, rather than designate critical habitat for the beluga at the time of listing as required by the Endangered Species Act, the Fisheries Service stated that it would defer habitat protection for a year. The Fisheries Service finally began the overdue process of protecting Cook Inlet beluga critical habitat by publishing a notice in the Federal Register requesting public comment on what areas should be protected. The Fisheries Service has stated that the habitat rule will be finalized by October 22, 2009.
Studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as species without any habitat designated.
“If we quickly act to designate and protect the critical habitat of the Cook Inlet beluga, this highly imperiled whale has a real chance of recovery,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately, the federal government has been lackadaisical about protecting the beluga, while the state of Alaska has been outright hostile to the species.”
In January, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced that the State of Alaska would sue the federal government to overturn endangered species protections for the beluga. That lawsuit has yet to be filed.
The Cook Inlet beluga whale is a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades. Recent surveys show the Cook Inlet beluga whale’s population now hovers around 375 animals, down from an estimated population of approximately 1,300 whales in the 1980s. The Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of five populations of beluga, or white whales, in Alaska.
The original decline of the Cook Inlet beluga was likely caused by overhunting, but the population has failed to rebound since hunting was curtailed in 1999, indicating that other factors are interfering with its recovery. Most likely the whale is being harmed by noise and pollution from industrial activities in Cook Inlet.
Cook Inlet is the most populated and fastest growing watershed in Alaska, and is subject to significant proposed offshore oil and gas development in beluga habitat. Additionally, the proposed Knik Arm Bridge, a billion-dollar boondoggle that would provide little benefit other than to shorten the governor’s commute from Wasilla to Anchorage, will directly affect some of the whale’s most important habitat. Port expansion and a proposed giant coal mine and coal export dock would also destroy key beluga habitat.
A recently completed Conservation Plan for the beluga specifically identified essential habitat areas for the beluga, as well as threats to that habitat, and will likely form the basis for the critical habitat designation.
“If we do what is necessary to protect the critical habitat of the Cook Inlet beluga whale, by extension we will also be protecting water quality, salmon fisheries, and the health of the entire Cook Inlet ecosystem,” added Cummings.
More information on the Cook Inlet beluga whale can be found at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/Cook_Inlet_beluga_whale/index.html
Federal documents related to the beluga, including the Conservation Plan, can be found at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/protectedresources/whales/beluga.htm