Center for Biological Diversity

Take Action to Protect Beluga Whale Habitat

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Cook Inlet is the most populated and fastest growing watershed in Alaska, and is subject to significant proposed offshore oil and gas development in beluga habitat. Port expansion and a proposed giant coal mine would also destroy key beluga habitat.

Last December, in response to the Center's efforts, the federal National Marine Fisheries Service finally took an important step toward protecting this imperiled whale's critical habitat by proposing to designate more than 3,000 square miles of habitat for protection. Studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as species without any habitat designated.

Please let the Fisheries Service know that further delay in protecting the Cook Inlet beluga whale and its habitat is unacceptable. All areas previously identified by the Fisheries Service as important habitat must be promptly protected, including the salmon streams that support the beluga's food supply.

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Please submit comments by March 2, 2010.

Cook Inlet beluga photo courtesy MCT Images.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades. Recent surveys show the Cook Inlet beluga whale's population now hovers around 300 animals, down from an estimated population of approximately 1,300 whales in the 1980s. The Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of five populations of beluga whales in Alaska.

The original decline of the Cook Inlet beluga was likely caused by overhunting, but the population has failed to rebound since hunting was curtailed in 1999, indicating that other factors are interfering with its recovery. Most likely the white whale is being harmed by noise and pollution from industrial activities in Cook Inlet.

In 2006 the Center for Biological Diversity, along with Trustees for Alaska, Cook Inletkeeper, and other organizations, petitioned to protect the species under the Endangered Species Act.  In October 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with protecting marine mammals such as the beluga, finally listed the species as "endangered".  This overdue protection came only after litigation brought by the Center and its allies.

But rather than designate federally protected critical habitat for the beluga at the time of listing -- as required by the Endangered Species Act -- the Fisheries Service deferred habitat protection for a year. After no action in a year, the Center formally notified the agency in October 2009 that we'd file a lawsuit to force the overdue habitat designation.