Despite being placed on the Endangered Species list in 2008, the Arctic’s beluga whales of Cook Inlet have not bounced back as a species, an alarming fact that has Friends of Animals continuing to press for more protections. The population of Cook Inlet belugas has declined from more than 1,000 in 1979 to about 300.
While efforts to halt hunting of belugas were expected to help their population growth, the belugas population continues to decline about 1 percent yearly. The most recent count by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2016 estimated the population to be just 312 in the inlet, a tidal estuary on Alaska’s southern coast which stretches from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage.
The most intense decline occurred between 1994-1998 when subsistence hunters killed half the population, reducing them from more than 650 to under 350. Despite a full ban on hunting in 2007, federal officials have not been able to pinpoint what has kept the whales from thriving and the beluga population remains critically low.
FoA has been pushing federal officials to consider how multiple leasing and drilling projects in Cook Inlet are cumulatively affecting their health. Beluga whales, known as white whales, live together in small groups. They are part of a family of toothed whales related to narwhals.
They are very social and are among the most vocal of aquatic mammals, using a sophisticated array of whistles and clicks to communicate with each other that earned them the name “sea canaries” from Arctic whalers. The Cook Inlet belugas are the only belugas in the world who live near urban centers.
One issue that is endangering them, FoA asserted in comments to federal officials, is the constant harassment they are subject to from commercial interests, including oil leasing companies, that receive permits—known as incidental harassment authorizations—in the waterway.
Joining with Sea Shepherd Legal, FoA told the National Marine Fisheries Service that before the agency grants permits for what is known as a “Level B take” it must consider the cumulative effects of such activity by multiple companies. A Level B take is defined as activity that has the potential to disturb a marine animal in the wild by causing disruption to behavioral patterns, including migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding and sheltering.
While each specific activity by a company may be limited in the harassment of the whales, the overall effects of the activities allowed by all the companies must be evaluated when assessing the dangers to the belugas, FoA wrote. In recent years, for example, ExxonMobil, BlueCrest and SAExploration all submitted request for permits for oil leasing activity in the inlet that in totality pose dangers to the whales.
In fact, about two dozen development projects were underway in the Cook Inlet beluga habitat and since the belugas were listed on Endangered Species Act, NMFS has authorized a combined total of 359 Level B takes. Issuance of the permits continues the NMFS pattern and practice of granting incidental harassment authorizations that have barraged the Cook Inlet belugas with years of noise and other behavioral disturbances, FoA noted.
Vessel movements, testing, drilling, pile driving and dredging have the potential to harass, harm and permanently injure or even kill the belugas. The continued harassment of the whales from these activities can cause reproduction issues and other health issues related to displacement and disruption of habitat such as inhibited immune systems from stress.
Another major concern is the threat of hearing damage to the whales from oil exploration sounds that include platform and drilling noise, echosounders and boat activity.
“Cook Inlet belugas have the right to live in a habitat that is relatively wild,’’ FoA and Sea Shepard said in their comments. FoA’s Wildlife Law Program will continue to raise awareness and push for more focus on the cumulative effects of commercial activity in the inlet that disrupts and endangers belugas.
“Marine life has much to lose from continued aquatic and coastal development,’’ said Harris. “Cook Inlet beluga whales and their environment should not have to suffer for the sake of private, commercial pursuits.” While NMFS considers the whales habituated to noise, FoA maintains that habituation of the whales remains largely unstudied and that designating them as being accustomed to noise is like saying that there is no negative impact on a human whose neighbor uses power tools every day in the apartment next door.
Before leaving office, President Obama removed 118 million acres of the publicly-owned Arctic from a 5-year-leasing program, preventing drilling from 2017-2022. However, President Trump reversed those measures—despite a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration status update that found that the threat of Cook Inlet beluga extinction is still high and the cumulative stress is not only continuing but increasing.
Trump is also calling for expanding annual lease sales there. And NMFS issued a notice that it is continuing to take applications for 2018 incidental harassment authorizations. “The new administration is going full steam ahead putting these whales at risk,’’ said Michael Harris, director of the FoA’s Wildlife Law Program.
But there is support for the belugas taking shape, which is good news. The NOAA recovery plan issued in January 2017 included recommendations that focus on the exact concern raised by FoA. The plan identifies the cumulative effects of multiple stressors and noise as a threat that has to be managed and mitigated. The plan includes recommendations for limiting the number of allowable “takes” of belugas for development and research projects.