Endangered Beluga Whales At Risk From Destructive Oil and Gas Drilling

Endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales are threatened by oil drilling and exploration, according to a lawsuit just filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and allies. The suit challenges a permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service to Apache Alaska Corporation to allow oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, home to a dwindling population of 280 beluga whales protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Each year, there are fewer and fewer of these whales left. Oil and gas drilling activities expose Cook Inlet beluga whales to earsplitting underwater noise that threatens their survival. All that noise in the marine environment makes survival impossible for these endangered whales.

Apache Alaska Corporation has acquired more than 300,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Cook Inlet. To find and develop oil and gas fields, Apache intends to conduct seismic exploration in the inlet over the next three to five years. Every year that Apache conducts its survey operations, it will spend 160 days surveying the inlet for oil and gas, 24 hours per day. For 10 to 12 of those hours, Apache will deploy in-water airguns, operate pingers and detonate explosives. Airgun noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, destroying their capacity to communicate and breed; it can drive whales to abandon their habitat and cease foraging, and closer in it can cause hearing loss and death.

“Cook Inlet is rapidly losing its belugas, and these smart, beautiful animals are unique and irreplaceable,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. “The Fisheries Service should be doing everything in its power to protect them from dying off, not rubber-stamping every risky oil and gas project that comes along.”

Of the five genetically unique beluga populations in Alaska, Cook Inlet belugas number the fewest. The group is under great duress from increasing industrialization of its habitat near Anchorage. In recent years, the population has plummeted from approximately 1,300 to 284 whales. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s annual survey of endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales shows a 20 percent decline in population estimates from previous years — 321 in 2009 and 340 in 2010 compared to 284 in 2011. The 2011 estimate is the second-lowest since annual surveys began in 1993. (The lowest estimate was in 2005, when belugas numbered just six fewer than this year’s estimate.)

“Belugas are sacred to my tribe and part of our tradition,” said Gary Harrison, traditional chief of Chickaloon Native Village. “Because so few of the whales remain, we no longer hunt them. Indigenous peoples are working to protect these whales, yet industry can come into the Cook Inlet and harass 30 beluga whales every year as they look for oil and gas. It’s simply wrong.”

In April 2006, the Center for Biological Diversity joined other conservation groups in petitioning the Fisheries Service to list Cook Inlet belugas as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The government listed the whales as endangered in October 2008 and designated more than 3,000 square miles of the Cook Inlet as critical habitat essential to the whales’ survival in April 2011.

Read more about endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales at the Center’s page.

Related Stories:

Palin Sues Over Beluga Whale

Breaking: Shell Sues the Center for Biological Diversity, Again

Feds Surrender, Approve Oil Drilling in Arctic Waters

Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons/Mike Johnston


Lynn Squance
Lynn Squance4 years ago


But make no mistake: while the court's decision is an essential first step in the right direction, this fight is far from over.

The court's ruling backs up our charge that the Obama Administration was too quick to sacrifice whales to Big Oil -- but it does not shut down Apache's operation. To do that we will need to build on this victory by escalating our campaign -- and possibly returning to federal court.

I will be sure to keep you posted as we map out our strategy in the days and weeks ahead. In the meantime, if you would like to ensure that we have the resources we need to keep the pressure on the Obama Administration and Apache Alaska, please make an online contribution today.

And thank you for standing with us in defense of these endangered whales.


Frances Beinecke
Natural Resources Defense Council"


Lynn Squance
Lynn Squance4 years ago

I received the following e-mail today which shows we are making progress, but really, the work will never be done.

"A federal judge has ruled in our favor that the Obama Administration violated the law -- three different laws, in fact -- when it authorized the Apache Alaska Corporation to use deafening seismic airguns to search for oil and gas in Cook Inlet, threatening the survival of its last 312 beluga whales.

The ruling is a crucial step forward in our campaign to protect these rare white whales, which are threatened not only by oil and gas companies but by the proposed Pebble Mine as well.

And it's an exciting win for you, too! You have stood with us every step of the way, deluging the Obama Administration with pro-beluga petitions and supporting our battle in federal court.

That court has now stated that the National Marine Fisheries Service gave Apache Alaska a green light by systematically undercounting the toll that seismic airguns would take on belugas.

The explosive noise from seismic airguns can deafen, injure and even kill whales. Apache's sonic blasts will repeat every 10 to 12 seconds -- and could go on for years.

The Fisheries Service predicted that Apache's airguns would harm at least 30 belugas during its first year of operations alone -- a staggering number that the court now says was clearly underestimated.

But make no mistake: while the court's decision is an essential first step in the right direction, this fight is far from ov

Yulan Lawson
Yulan Lawson5 years ago

Thanks for sharing, I've been signing petitions.

Cheryl B.
Cheryl B5 years ago


Cheryl B.
Cheryl B5 years ago


Carrie Anne Brown

sad news but thanks for sharing

James Campbell
James Campbell5 years ago

I am sure I am not the only one who is thoroughly sick and tired of reading YET AGAIN that some members of our greedy species are about to destroy another area of our planet and along with it the wildlife, who have nowhere else to go when their home has been destroyed. I have not been blessed with children, but I have devoted my professional life to them and I am enraged that we are on the brink of leaving them a polluted, ugly planet and millions of pieces to pick up to get even close to what we and our parents & grandparents inherited. industrialists and politicians are all to blame. On the one hand they spend millions on informing us of the brave, new world run on ‘green energy’ yet in-practice, littering the landscape with less-than-efficient wind turbines (lots of fat profits in this) whilst refusing subsidies for solar and wave power development (not as much profit) and authorising very 'ungreen' oil and gas drilling. The irony is that these beautiful beluga whales are probably more intelligent than the average politician and oil executive.

John S.
Past Member 5 years ago

Thanks for the information.

Heather Marvin
Heather Marvin5 years ago

I just don't get it. These animals are endangered and the powers what be who should protect them are so slow to act. I love these "babies", I think they are gorgeous. Live on Beluga Whales!

Kamakshi Pande
Kamakshi P5 years ago

really sad... situation quite grave..... some serious steps should immediately be taken..