Five Years Into Recovery Plan, Endangered Whale Population Plummeting Because of Cumulative Threats, Lax Federal Oversight
WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Investigation Agency, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, and Cook Inletkeeper submitted a legal petition today demanding that the Secretary of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service stop issuing “take” authorizations to oil companies and others to harm and harass Cook Inlet beluga whales in Alaska.
This critically endangered beluga subpopulation has declined more than 75% since 1970. Scientists estimate that there are only 279 individuals left. Experts have warned that if the Cook Inlet beluga population drops to 200 individuals, it may cross a critical threshold where small population dynamics will prevent recovery.
Although a recovery plan for Cook Inlet belugas was drafted five years ago, the federal government has continued to authorize an exceedingly high number of “take” permits allowing unjustifiable harassment to belugas from a wide range of activities throughout Cook Inlet. “Take” prohibited by federal law includes actions that disrupt behavioral patterns, including migration, breathing, breeding or feeding.
“For the past three years, the federal government has, astoundingly, authorized each member of this tiny, struggling population of Cook Inlet beluga whales to be harassed over 80 times,” said Nicole Schmitt, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance. “Before the Fisheries Service authorizes any more harassment, we simply ask that they take a comprehensive look at their cumulative effects and make informed decisions about how much harassment this imperiled population can actually sustain each year.”
In 2020 alone the Fisheries Service authorized the equivalent of 50% of the entire Cook Inlet beluga whale population to be “incidentally” harassed by industrial and commercial projects in the Inlet, including oil and gas development and pile driving activities — a figure that rises substantially when taking harassment from scientific research into consideration.
“Our beluga population is a big part of what makes Cook Inlet so incredibly special — nowhere else in the country can you drive down the highway and see these amazing whales out your car window,” said Liz Mering, Inletkeeper for Cook Inletkeeper. “Unfortunately, regardless of their endangered status, this population continues to decline while the oil and gas industry and others are permitted to harm and harass these whales to extinction.”
The petition asks the Biden administration to issue new regulations establishing an annual Cook Inlet beluga “take cap” and to set that cap at zero until a programmatic review of the cumulative impacts of the take authorization system is completed and Cook Inlet belugas show signs of recovery.
“The federal government is letting the oil industry harm and harass some of the most endangered whales on earth, despite warnings from leading scientists,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Time and again, the federal Marine Mammal Commission and other experts have expressed alarm at these whales’ decline and flagged the urgent need for reform. The Biden administration needs to fix this broken system or we’ll lose the Cook Inlet beluga population forever.”
The petition urges the Fisheries Service to meaningfully address the cumulative impacts these animals face from multiple stressors, including underwater noise, pollution, the risk of a catastrophic event like an oil spill, and reduced prey availability.
“In its own 2016 recovery plan for Cook Inlet belugas, the Fisheries Service highlighted the threat of cumulative impacts to belugas and recommended a reassessment of how take authorizations are permitted, and yet here we are five years later with a population still in decline, an agency rubber-stamping a massive number of take authorizations, and no reevaluation of the system in sight,” says CT Harry, senior marine campaigner and staff scientist at the Environmental Investigation Agency. “Cook Inlet is the only home these charismatic whales have, and they deserve to swim, feed and reproduce in a healthy environment, not one rife with man-made stressors.”
An endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale swims with her calf. (Credit: Hollis Europe/Jacob Barbaro, NOAA Fisheries) Image is available for media use.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is a 501(c)(3) independent, international, non-profit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., with a proven record of instigating and affecting systematic change to protect the Earth’s environment.
Alaska Wildlife Alliance is an Alaska-based nonprofit protecting Alaska’s wildlife since 1978 through citizen mobilization, advocacy, and education.
Cook Inletkeeper is a community-based nonprofit organization formed by concerned Alaskans in 1995 to protect the Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains.