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The National Marine Fisheries Service published a recovery plan Wednesday for the Cook Inlet beluga whale to serve as a detailed blueprint to guide efforts to recover this federally endangered species. The Cook Inlet beluga whale population has declined to only about 340 individuals. Cook Inlet belugas are endangered by habitat loss and degradation, marine noise, oil and gas development, unauthorized take, marine pollution, disease agents, and prey decline.
“Beluga whales are magnificent marine mammals that are suffering death by a thousand cuts in the waters of the heavily urbanized Cook Inlet in Alaska,” said Abel Valdivia, a marine ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The finalization of this overdue recovery plan under the Endangered Species Act provides us with a roadmap to increase the numbers of this dwindling population.”
Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered in 2008 in response to a petition by the Center. The most recent abundance survey, in 2014, estimated a population of 340 individuals in the Cook Inlet; NOAA Fisheries considers the Cook Inlet beluga whale among the eight ocean species most at risk of extinction in the near future. The new recovery plan sets a goal to more than double the population and set the belugas on a long-term course toward recovery.
The plan identifies marine noise due to oil and gas exploration, coastal development, and vessel traffic as a key threat to the whales and recommends steps to assess this noise risk and reduce it. However, it fails to identify concrete actions that will curb noise disturbance. Other recommended recovery actions include reducing threats from disease, habitat loss or degradation, and unauthorized take. These threats must be drastically shrunk to improve belugas’ odds of survival.
“It amazes me that this recovery plan took so long to be completed, especially when the data show a continued decline in the belugas’ population,” said Valdivia. “NOAA Fisheries and its partners must address the threats to these whales and quickly implement the recommended recovery actions laid out in the plan before Cook Inlet beluga whales go extinct.”