An extra three thousand square miles of habitat for endangered beluga whales has been designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There are less than 350 Cook Inlet beluga whales remaining in the wild. Two areas within the Cook Inlet are the new protected territory. The designation of the habitat as protected falls under the Endangered Species Act and restricts the construction and operation of oil rigs, port construction and dredging.
Protected areas include locations within the Cook Inlet and nearby waters where the whales move seasonally, and places of biological significance, for example, where their food sources are.
It was only in 2008 that Cook Inlet beluga whales were granted protection as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In 2000 they had been listed as a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 1995 they had a population of about 653, and have been declining since then due to overhunting and habitat loss.
In 2008 Sarah Palin questioned the scientific data showing very low Cook Inlet beluga numbers, and said the endangered species listing was premature. She was wrong, and in fact the listing was overdue, as Cook Inlet beluga whales declined almost fifty percent from 1994 to 1998. There has been an almost eighty percent decline since the 1980s.
Still, there is resistance from some Alaskans, including the governor, who said they will, “fight these federal actions that destroy jobs and opportunities for economic development.” (Source: courthousenews.com) Sadly, the governor is either willfully stating misinformation or is uninformed as healthy ecosystems contribute massively to the state’s economy, “Almost 55,000 direct jobs (full time equivalent basis) and 84,000 total FTE jobs are closely linked to the health of Alaska’s ecosystems. These jobs produce almost $2.6 billion of income for Alaska workers.” Source: University of Alaska
Beluga whales can weigh up to 3,000 pounds and eat salmon, capelin, herring, shrimp, arctic cod, flounder, crabs, and mollusks. They seem to especially like salmon and gather at the mouths of rivers to catch them. Calves are born grey or brown and fade to white.
Image Credit: Noaa.gov