SAVING THE COOK INLET BELUGA WHALE
Like the legendary Moby Dick, the full-grown beluga whale is snowy white. Yet unlike Herman Melville's mostly fictitious albino sperm whale, which had only Captain Ahab to deal with, the beluga swims in an ocean chock-full of dangers such as pollution, shipping, oil drilling and global warming. The isolated Cook Inlet beluga whale population must also contend with the increasingly perilous and industrialized waters near Anchorage, Alaska's most populated and fastest-growing city.
Belugas are small whales, measuring up to 15 feet long with a maximum weight of 3,000 pounds. They're bigger than all but the largest dolphins and smaller than most other toothed whales. At birth, beluga whales are 5 feet long, roughly 100 pounds, and dark blue-gray in color. Unmistakable as adults, their color lightens to white, and they have a dorsal ridge rather than a fin. Belugas have ornately curved tail fins; broad, short flippers; and a soft, bulbous head. The waters of Cook Inlet are dark and turbid, so Cook Inlet belugas depend heavily on sound for foraging, navigation and communication.
As recently as the 1980s, the geographically isolated and genetically distinct belugas in Cook Inlet numbered 1,300 whales and were visible from downtown Anchorage. The population plunged dramatically in the ‘90s, and the National Marine Fisheries Service falsely predicted that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population would rebound once hunting was restricted. Due to threats like oil and gas development, commercial shipping, climate change, decreases in fish, chemical pollutants (and so much more), scientists estimate only 279 of these whales remain today.
The Center and allies first petitioned to protect Cook Inlet’s belugas under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, but it wasn’t till after a lawsuit and another petition that the Fisheries Service proposed protection. Finally, after receiving a notice of intent to sue from us — plus more than 150,000 comments from Center supporters — the Fisheries Service protected Cook Inlet belugas in 2008, designating almost 2 million acres of critical habitat three years later.
When Alaska filed suit challenging the white whale's Endangered Species Act status, we fought back — and won in 2011. We also successfully sued over federal permits given to oil and gas companies for fossil fuel exploration and development in Cook Inlet.