Last week, a stranded beluga whale was found dead in the mudflats near Potter Marsh, according to the Anchorage Daily News. This news underlines the lingering mystery – why are belugas continuing to decline?
Even NOAA Fisheries officials in 2017 acknowledged that they did not know why the Cook Inlet population has not recovered.
What we do know is that there are likely many factors contributing to the decline of these endangered whales, such as climate change, prey availability, coastal development and pollution, which are understudied.
Unfortunately, Cook Inlet has become a dumping ground for toxins and raw sewage. For example, the state of Alaska is issuing Clean Water Act permits that allow the dumping of billions of gallons of toxic substances into the inlet, where critical habitat has been designated for belugas. It’s the only coastal water body in the country where a loophole allows oil and gas companies to dump toxic waste. Research shows that bioaccumulation of toxics in top predators, like belugas and other marine mammals, is bad news. We can look toward other beluga populations to demonstrate this. A 2019 study determined that both St. Lawrence Estuary belugas, which are known to have high cancer rates, and Cook Inlet belugas have higher levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – known to cause cancer – than belugas in other wild populations or in aquariums.
Cook Inlet is continually impacted by gas leaks. Last month, Hilcorp was ordered to replace an undersea pipeline after it leaked gas for the fifth time in the last several years. And, what’s more, according to Alaska Public Media, the last time the pipe leaked in 2017, Hilcorp didn’t complete repairs for three months, citing danger from ice in the inlet.
Oil and gas reigns supreme in the inlet. As of 2020, there were 17 oil and gas platforms in Cook Inlet and 211 active oil and gas leases. Once these contaminants enter the ocean, they can accumulate in species like Cook Inlet beluga whales, threatening their immune and nervous systems, as well as their reproductive systems.
Despite all these known toxins and pollutants in Cook Inlet, NOAA Fisheries has cited the threat of pollution as low for the Cook Inlet beluga.
We also know that despite conservation measures taken to date, the most recent population estimate of Cook Inlet belugas is 279 animals, down from the 2016 estimate of 328 animals and well over 1,000 as recently as the 1970s. This population has declined over 75% from its historic population of 1,300 individuals and continues to decline at a rate of 2.3% annually. Of the species protected by NOAA Fisheries under the Endangered Species Act, the agency lists Cook Inlet belugas as one of nine closest to extinction.
It is unclear if this population will be able to recover, and time is running out. New genetic studies indicate Cook Inlet belugas might not be reproducing until their late teens, later than other populations and slowing reproductive rates.
What’s clear is that belugas must keep their endangered status and NOAA must take a precautionary approach to beluga management in the future, including taking preventive action; identifying and remediating contaminants; holding corporations accountable and including public opinion. It must research the impacts of pollutants on the water quality of the inlet and the belugas that call it home.
We must do more to protect Cook Inlet beluga habitat from human activity, otherwise, these whales will go extinct on our watch. Alaskans can weigh in on their continued support to keep the whale on the Endangered Species List by June 25.
Suzanne Steinert leads efforts to support the local and global conservation of beluga whales for the nonprofit Beluga Whale Alliance (BWA). BWA’s main focus here in its home region is encouraging the recovery of Alaska’s critically endangered Cook Inlet belugas.
Katharine Bear Nalvin is the Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Anchorage. Katharine attended Oregon State University and earned her M.S. in Marine Resource Management while also working at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
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