Cook Inlet Beluga Population Estimate Lower Than Previous Year

National Marine Fisheries Service scientists released the 2011 population estimate for Cook Inlet Belugas today. The current number is 284 whales, nearly 20% less than last year’s estimate of 340. But although 20% may sound like a dramatic decrease, so little seems to be known about the belugas that it’s difficult to know how significant the number may be.

Rod Hobbs works in the National Marine Mammal lab in Seattle. Hobbs designed the aerial survey that takes place in Cook Inlet each year and has been researching the Cook Inlet population of belugas for nearly two decades. He says the numbers are in a slow decline.

“But it doesn’t seem to be a large decline. It seems to be a continued, slow decline that we’ve seen for the last 10 years, since the end of the major subsistence harvest period.”

It’s not known why the belugas do not appear to be recovering. They are no longer hunted, but concerns about depleted food supplies, pollution from sewage and street run off from Anchorage, oil development and vessel traffic have been highlighted as adding stress to the whales. The Cook Inlet Beluga were listed as endangered in 2008 and critical habitat has been designated. There is a recovery team working on a plan to try to turn the population numbers around. In the 1980s, there were around 1300 belugas in Cook Inlet.

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Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at ltownsend@alaskapublic.org or call 907-350-2058.