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Species in the Spotlight: Cook Inlet Beluga Whale


About Cook Inlet
Beluga Whales

New! Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Action Plan (PDF)

LOCATION 

  • Beluga whales are common to many regions of Alaska, as well as Russia, Canada, and Greenland. Cook Inlet beluga whales share Cook Inlet with Alaska’s human population center, transportation hub, and largest concentration of industrial activity. 

STATUS

  • The population has declined by nearly 75 percent since 1979 (from about 1,300 to 340 whales).

HABITAT

  • Cook Inlet Beluga whales exhibit seasonal shifts in distribution and habitat use within Cook Inlet, but they stay in the inlet throughout their lives. The seasonal shifts appear to be related to corresponding changes in their physical environment (e.g., ice and currents) and food sources, specifically the timing of fish runs. Generally, belugas spend the ice-free months in upper Cook Inlet, often in discrete high use areas with plenty of fish, and then head south to the deeper waters of middle Cook Inlet in winter, but whales may be found anywhere in Cook Inlet at any time of year.


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The Cook Inlet Beluga whale is one of 
NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight.    
 

Background
Beluga whales squeal, squeak, and chirp, and it’s why sailors long ago called them “sea canaries.” This species is gregarious and small (up to 15 feet long). Of the five Alaskan stocks, the Cook Inlet beluga stock is the smallest and the most isolated from other belugas. 

Cook Inlet belugas once were a valuable part of the regional Alaska Native subsistence diet, but the population has declined rapidly. This rapid decline was most likely due to unregulated subsistence harvest at a level that this small population could not sustain. The hunt has been suspended since 2005, but unfortunately the whale population has not recovered as expected.

NOAA Fisheries designated the Cook Inlet beluga whale population as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2000, and listed these belugas as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. The rapid decline and dire status of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population makes it a priority for focusing efforts within NOAA Fisheries and with our partners to stabilize and prevent extinction of this iconic species.

Threats
The summer range of Cook Inlet belugas has changed significantly since the 1970s, contracting northward and eastward toward Anchorage in upper Cook Inlet. This range contraction happened at the same time that the population underwent rapid decline. The reason for this change of distribution is not known for sure, but the range contraction puts a larger portion of the endangered population in close proximity to the most densely populated area of the state during the busy summer season, when boating, construction, and other human activities all increase.

The belugas’ summer core range is extremely silty due to the glaciers that feed into upper Cook Inlet. This makes their adept use of sound essential to communicate, locate prey, avoid predators, and navigate. Cook Inlet is a naturally noisy environment due to the extreme tides and heavy silt load. Adding human sounds from ship traffic, construction projects, oil and gas activities, and other sources can make it more difficult for belugas to thrive. 

Especially loud underwater sounds can kill marine mammals, but sublethal effects are more common, and include injury or behavioral changes that can range from mild (e.g., increased vocalizations) to severe (e.g., abandonment of vital habitat). Thus, assessing and managing the effects of human-caused noise is a major issue for the conservation and recovery of Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Recovery 
To help work toward recovery of these whales, NOAA Fisheries formed a recovery team of scientists and stakeholders to assist with developing a recovery plan. The draft  recovery plan, now available for public review, builds upon scientific studies, traditional knowledge, and other observations and sources of information to identify gaps in our knowledge and the research needed to fill those gaps. It reviews and assesses threats to Cook Inlet beluga whales and identifies management actions to help address the threats. 

Threats with the potential to limit recovery include anthropogenic noise; catastrophic events (e.g., natural disasters, spills, mass strandings); habitat loss or degradation; prey reduction; disease agents (e.g., pathogens, parasites, harmful algal blooms); unauthorized takes and trauma; pollution; predation; hunting, poaching, or intentional harassment; and cumulative and synergistic effects of multiple stressors. The draft recovery plan also identifies specific criteria that will signal the recovery of these animals.

In the development of the draft recovery plan, NOAA Fisheries reached out to all parties with interests in these whales, including Cook Inlet area local governments, Alaska Native co-management partners, the oil and gas industry, fishing groups, environmental organizations, the State of Alaska, and other federal agencies. NOAA Fisheries will continue to involve stakeholders in this priority species initiative as the plan’s key strategies for preventing extinction are implemented over the coming years.