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Cook Inlet Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

Range and Habitat: Cook Inlet - between the Gulf of Alaska and Anchorage
Beluga whale
Beluga whale (Photo: Roy Nageak)

Status under U.S Law:

ESA - Endangered
MMPA - Depleted
Major
conservation issues:
Critically small population size, contaminants, ship strikes, oil and gas production, commercial fishing, habitat alteration/destruction, strandings, killer whale predation, cumulative impacts from multiple sources of disturbance
Physical characteristics: At Birth Maturity
Length 1.5-1.6 m
(4'11"-5'3")
3.9-4.9 m
(13-16 ft)
Weight 80-100 kg
(176-220 lb)
700-1,600 kg
(1,500-3,500 lb)

Age:

At least 25 years, possibly more than 50

Beluga whales are found in seasonally ice-covered waters throughout arctic and sub-arctic regions. Five stocks are recognized in U.S. waters off Alaska, including one that is found almost exclusively in Cook Inlet.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale stock was estimated to number about 1,300 animals at the time the Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted in 1972, but it declined sharply in the 1990’s. Between 1994 and 1998, the stock declined by approximately 50 percent due largely to unsustainable subsistence harvesting. It was assumed that once hunting was controlled in 1999, the population would begin to recover. However, the stock has continued to decline at a rate of between a 0.6-1.3 percent annually. The National Marine Fisheries Service listed the Cook Inlet beluga whale population as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2006. Because the population, on average, has remained below 350 whales since then, no subsistence harvesting has been allowed under the applicable regulations. The most recent abundance estimate, from 2012, is that the population numbers 312 animals. An updated abundance estimate, based on surveys conducted in June 2014, is expected to be released by the National Marine Fisheries Service early in 2015. The underlying growth rate of this population remains low and there are concerns about whether this population will be able to recover.

Two areas within Cook Inlet have been designated as critical habitat. These areas include all waters in the upper inlet, nearshore areas in the southwestern part of the inlet, and Kachemak Bay on the eastern side of the inlet (see figure 1). A recovery team for the stock was established in 2010, but the team was disbanded in 2013 after completing the first draft of a recovery plan. It is expected that the National Marine Fisheries Service will publish a draft recovery plan for public review and comment in 2015.

(Figure 1)

Links for Additional Information

Commission Reports and Related Publications:

See Beluga Whale sections in chapters on Species of Special Concern in past Annual Reports to Congress:

Link to Past MMC Annual Reports

Commission Letters:

Recent Commission letters concerning beluga whales:

December 29, 2014 - to NMFS regarding a notice of intent to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement on the issuance of incidental take regulations for beluga whales and other marine mammals in Cook Inlet, Alaska

December 8, 2014 - to BOEM regarding a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for Lease Sale 244 within the Cook Inlet, Alaska, planning area

October 14, 2014 - to NMFS regarding an incidental take application for exploratory drilling in Cook Inlet Alaska

September 4, 2014 - to NMFS regardingan incidental take application for a  seismic survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska

January 9, 2013 - to NMFS regarding an incidental take application for a 3D seismic survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska

May 7, 2012 - to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management regarding the Proposed Cook Inlet Special Interest Lease Sale 244

October 21, 2011 - to NMFS regarding an incidental take application for a seismic survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska

October 3, 2011 - to NMFS regarding the 2011 Marine Mammal Commission annual meeting follow up on Cook Inlet beluga whale conservation

March 7, 2011 - to NMFS regarding concern over scientific independence of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Team

January 21, 2011 - to NMFS regarding scientific independence of members of the Cook Inlet Whale Recovery Team

June 28, 2010 - to NMFS regarding efforts to recover the Cook Inlet beluga whale population

March 29, 2010 - to NMFS regarding the notice of intent to prepare a recovery plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whale

March 3, 2010 - to NMFS regarding a proposed designation of critical habitat for the endangered Cook Inlet (Alaska) stock of beluga whales

Additional Links:

National Marine Fisheries Service - Stock Assessment Reports

National Marine Fisheries Service - Beluga Whales

National Marine Fisheries Service - Alaska Regional Office - Beluga Whales in Alaska

National Marine Fisheries Service - Subsistence Harvest Regulations

Alaska Fisheries Science Center - Cook Inlet Beluga Whales

Wikipedia - Beluga Whales

Alaska Department of Fish & Game - Beluga Whale

 

 

 

 

 

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