Like the legendary Moby Dick, the full-grown beluga whale is snowy white. Unlike Melville’s mostly fictitious albino sperm whale, which had only Ahab to contend with, the beluga, or “white whale” (Delphinapterus leucas), swims in an ocean full of very real threats, ranging from hunting, pollution, oil development, and fishing nets to global warming.

Belugas have a circumpolar distribution, with about 150,000 whales in 30 separate populations occurring in Arctic waters off Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Scandinavia. Globally, the World Conservation Union considers the species Vulnerable to extinction with many populations severely depleted from hunting. Belugas are also threatened by the loss of their sea-ice habitat from global warming and the increasing industrial development of the Arctic.

Beluga whale
Photo courtesy of Eva Hejda/Wikimedia Commons

While the occasional stray beluga has wandered as far south as New Jersey in the Atlantic and Washington state in the Pacific, in the United States belugas are generally confined to Alaska. In Alaska, belugas are comprised of six populations or stocks, the Beaufort Sea, Eastern Chukchi Sea, East Bering Sea, Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, and Yakutat Bay stocks. Of these, the Cook Inlet and Yakutat Bay stocks are the most imperiled.

Once numbering more than a thousand, the geographically isolated and genetically distinct beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska, used to be seen readily from the windows of shops and restaurants in downtown Anchorage and all along the shores of adjacent Cook Inlet. The population declined precipitously in the 1990s in the face of a multitude of threats, including unsustainable subsistence harvest and increasing industrial development in the Inlet. In 1999 the Center petitioned to protect the species under the Endangered Species Act. In response, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared the population “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and curtailed the hunt, but refused to protect the whales under the more powerful Endangered Species Act.

Beluga female and calf
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Fisheries Service predicted the Cook Inlet beluga whale population would rebound once hunting was restricted. Unfortunately the population has not recovered and continues to decline. Fewer than 300 individual whales likely remain.

In 2006 the Center and its allies once again petitioned the Fisheries Service to protect the Cook Inlet beluga under the Endangered Species Act. On April 20, 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service formally proposed to list the species as “endangered” under the Act. The announcement comes after a decade-long effort by the Center to afford this highly imperiled population of whales the full protections the Act provides.

The Fisheries Service must finalize protection and designate critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga by April 2008. The Center is working to ensure this magnificent whale receives all the protection it needs to survive and recover.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
April 26, 2007
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