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Calls Continue to Protect Cook Inlet Belugas

New report and petition call for action.

As Cook Inlet beluga whales continue to slide closer to extinction, a coalition of conservation groups petitioned the federal government this week to do more to save them. The groups say the National Marine Fisheries Service has not made much progress in carrying out the recovery plan it created in 2016 to reverse the decline. Alaska Public Media Washington Correspondent Liz Ruskin reports.

A report released to support the petition is called “Five Years of Failure.”

“It's been a little bit over five years now. And the population is not recovering. In fact, it’s worse.”

CT Harry is with the Environmental Investigation Agency, a group behind the petition and report. He says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues to grant permits for activities in the inlet that make noise or otherwise disturb the whales.

“the goal in our petition is to basically tell NOAA to follow their own advice by reevaluating how these harassment authorizations are permitted, and to not look at each one on an individual basis, but to look at them on a cumulative basis to determine the cumulative stress impact of a multitude of threats.”

Cook Inlet Belugas – the small white whales that are sometimes seen from the Seward Highway and the Coastal Trail in downtown Anchorage – have been listed as endangered since 2008. They’ve declined about 80% since the late 1970s. The last subsistence harvest was in 2005, and still the slide continues. NOAA says 279 individuals remain.

A statement from NOAA Fisheries says it’s aware of the petition and can’t comment on it. But in previous interviews, and in videos on its website, the agency describes the whales’ decline as troubling and confounding, despite lots of research. A video on NOAA’s website describes the challenges the whales of Cook Inlet face – many from activities far from the water.

“These may include diminishing food, habitat loss or destruction, pollution, toxins and human caused noise which hampers their ability to feed and communicate. Researchers are trying to understand which of these threats may be impacting them most.” :18

Of the thousands of beluga-harassment incidents the government has allowed lately, the vast majority are for research, some just to count or photograph the whales, but also biopsies.

Liz Mering is at Cook Inletkeeper, one of the groups behind the petition. She says the goal isn’t necessarily to stop permits for the oil industry, or port construction or research, but to get the government to figure out what it needs to do to prevent an extinction.

“I just can't imagine living any other place where you can drive down the highway and see beluga whales out your window of your car … and it's just such an incredible place and to lose them would be devastating, I think for all of us who live in the Cook Inlet area.”

Cook Inlet belugas are a distinct genetic population that live in this one spot. The conservation groups and the scientists at NOAA Fisheries agree that if they disappear, others aren’t likely to take their place. Reporting from Washington, I’m Liz Ruskin.