Marine Mammal Commission

Cook Inlet Beluga Whale

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 endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population numbers fewer than 350 individuals and has been experiencing an ongoing decline for more than a decade. This prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to select this population for its Species in the Spotlight initiative to bring attention and focus to selected domestic marine species at risk of extinction.

Beluga whales swimming underwater.

Belugas in the Arctic. (NOAA)

Species Status

The Cook Inlet beluga whale stock was estimated to number about 1,300 animals at the time the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was enacted in 1972, but it declined sharply in the 1990s. 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 0.4-1.3 percent annually. NMFS listed the Cook Inlet beluga whale population as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. 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 2014 is that the population numbers 340 animals. 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 except for a small exclusion area at the mouth of Knik Arm, nearshore areas in the southwestern part of the inlet, and Kachemak Bay on the eastern side of the inlet. A recovery team for the stock was established in 2010 and submitted a first draft of a recovery plan to NMFS in 2013 before being disbanded. Working from that draft, NMFS published a draft plan for public review and comment on May 15, 2015, on which the the Commission submitted comments.

Map of Cook Inlet beluga whale critical habitat.

Map of Cook Inlet beluga whale critical habitat. (NOAA)

What the Commission Is Doing

The Marine Mammal Commission has focused on efforts to conserve the Cook Inlet beluga whale since the mid-1990s. We advocated for the species listing under the ESA. We also participated as a party to the formal rulemaking that established limits on the allowable taking of Cook Inlet beluga whales by Alaska Natives for subsistence. In addition, we have recommended that NMFS (1) give high priority to research directed at understanding the causes of the observed population trends, (2) support continuation of ongoing photo-identification work, (3) proceed cautiously in pursuing a large-scale biopsy research program for the population, (4) develop a robust plan for responding to stranding events, (5) fund annual abundance surveys, and (6) develop mechanisms for assessing cumulative impacts from multiple stressors on the population. The Commission continues to recommend that NMFS and other agencies refrain from issuing authorizations for additional human activities in Cook Inlet that could affect beluga whales until they have a better basis for concluding that those activities will not exacerbate an already significant risk of extinction.

Additionally, Commission staff helped to plan and participated in the November 2014 workshop in Anchorage, Alaska on Conservation and Recovery of Cook Inlet Beluga Whales in the Context of Continued Development.

Commission Reports and Publications

For more information on the Cook Inlet beluga whale, see the Commission’s 2012 annual report (pages 59 – 63).

Commission Letters

Letter Date Letter Description
September 11, 2015

Letter to NMFS regarding a notice of intent to prepare a programmatic environmental assessment regarding the issuance of incidental take authorizations in Cook Inlet, Alaska

July 24, 2015

Letter to NMFS regarding an incidental take application from ExxonMobil Alaska LNG for a geophysical and geotechnical survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska

July 14, 2015

Letter to NMFS regarding comments regarding the draft Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery plan

April 20, 2015

Letter to NMFS regarding an incidental take application from SAExploration for a seismic survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska

April 13, 2015

Letter to NMFS regarding an incidental take application from Apache Alaska Corporation for seismic surveys in Cook Inlet, Alaska

December 29, 2014

Letter 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

Letter 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

Letter to NMFS regarding an incidental take application from BlueCrest for exploratory drilling activities in Cook Inlet, Alaska

September 4, 2014

Letter to NMFS regarding an incidental take application from Apache Alaska Corporation for a seismic survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska

January 9, 2013

Letter to NMFS regarding an incidental take application from Apache Alaska Corporation for a 3D seismic survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska

May 7, 2012

Letter to BOEM regarding the Proposed Cook Inlet Special Interest Lease Sale 244

October 21, 2011

Letter to NMFS regarding an incidental take application from Apache Alaska Corporation for a seismic survey in Cook Inlet, Alaska

October 3, 2011

Letter to NMFS regarding the 2011 Marine Mammal Commission annual meeting follow up on Cook Inlet beluga whale conservation

March 7, 2011

Letter to NMFS regarding concern over scientific independence of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Team

January 21, 2011

Letter to NMFS regarding scientific independence of members of the Cook Inlet Whale Recovery Team

June 28, 2010

Letter to NMFS regarding efforts to recover the Cook Inlet beluga whale population

March 29, 2010

Letter to NMFS regarding the notice of intent to prepare a recovery plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whale

March 3, 2010

Letter to NMFS regarding a proposed designation of critical habitat for the endangered Cook Inlet, Alaska stock of beluga whales

Learn More

Threats

Based on a long time series of abundance estimates it is clear that some factor or combination of factors is impeding the recovery of the Cook Inlet beluga whale from a precipitous decline due to overharvest by subsistence hunters during the 1990s. The causes of the population decline since 1999 remain undetermined, but may include disturbance from industrial activities such as oil and gas exploration and development, construction, shipping, strandings, prey reduction, disease, habitat loss and degradation, predation, pollution, unauthorized take, and cumulative effects from these and other possible factors.

While the decline of Cook Inlet beluga whales has been fairly well documented, the cause or causes of the observed decline have not been determined. However, several potential threats have been identified (see discussion in Part III of the draft recovery plan).

Current Conservation Efforts

The Commission continues to review and provide recommendations to NMFS and other federal agencies concerning activities with the potential to affect Cook Inlet beluga whales adversely. The Commission sees NMFS’s selection of Cook Inlet beluga whales under Species in the Spotlight initiative as an opportunity to focus research efforts on identifying the causes of the population’s decline and management actions that can be taken to reverse that trend.

The Future/Next Steps

The Commission recently provided comments to NMFS on a draft recovery plan for this stock. We plan to monitor the development of a final recovery plan and implementation of the identified research and management actions. Also, the Commission has expressed concern that NMFS continues to make negligible impact determinations and to issue incidental take authorizations for various activities in Cook Inlet despite the fact that existing conditions appear to be having non-negligible impacts on the population and the possibility that the types of disturbance being authorized might be contributing to the ongoing decline. We plan to continue to press this point with NMFS in an effort to alleviate additional threats to the population.

Additional Resources

NMFS Species in the Spotlight – Cook Inlet beluga whale

NMFS Beluga Whales in Alaska

NMFS Management and Recovery of Cook Inlet Beluga Whales

NMFS Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Research and Reports

National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) Beluga Whale

NMFS Stock Assessment Reports – Cook Inlet Beluga Whale

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cook Inlet Beluga Whale