Scientists remain puzzled over struggles of Inlet belugas

Onlookers follow a pod of beluga whales passing Point Woronzof Friday afternoon September 26, 2008 in west Anchorage. ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Beluga whales still make fairly regular appearances in upper Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm near Anchorage -- more than a dozen were briefly stranded by low tide in August -- but the Cook Inlet population hasn't increased from about 300 since its steep decline in the 1980s and 1990s. That's puzzling to scientists considering the Bristol Bay population is healthy and growing. The Alaska Public Radio Network is broadcasting a series this week on the state of Inlet belugas and researchers' latest thoughts on why they're endangered.

[APU marine biologist] Leslie Cornick agrees that past tests have found the Cook Inlet belugas quite clean of contaminants. But she says changing ocean conditions are key.

"I really like the term global weirding, as opposed to global warming. It's not about everything just getting warmer, it's just about everything becoming more chaotic and unpredictable. What does climate change have to do with Cook Inlet beluga whales? It could have a lot to do with Cook Inlet Beluga whales because it has a lot to do with the health of the ocean. And it's the health of the ocean, overall, that is really the culprit," Cornick said.

She says top predators throughout the North Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska are in trouble and they are the canary in the coal mine. Cornick says using the oceans for dumping pits as humans have for thousands of years is taking its toll and for Cook Inlet belugas there isn't much time.

"That's actually the thing that worries me, because when you're dealing with a population that's only about 300 or so animals, you don't really have decades and it does concern me that we could see the extinction of this population in my lifetime," Cornick said.

Read and listen to APRN's beluga reports:

Yearly Cook Inlet Beluga Count Wraps Up

Cost will play major part in beluga recover plan success

Scientists search for reason of Inlet beluga decline

The Redoubt Reporter this week told the story of the Bristol Bay fishermen who in June rescued a tiny newborn beluga from a beach and kept it comfortable until an Alaska SeaLife Center crew arrived to take it to Seward. The rescuers were proud of what their efforts achieved, even though the calf eventually died at the center from infections.