Beluga whales may be headed for extinction

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The beluga whales that swim in Cook Inlet off Alaska’s largest city are continuing to struggle and appear headed for extinction if nothing changes, a government official said Friday.

A survey done in June found the whales “are not recovering,” said Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We don’t know why.”

Cook Inlet belugas, considered genetically distinct, have been struggling and in decline for years. The white whales in waters off Anchorage have been listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2008, when the count was higher than the most recent population estimates.

The survey estimated the number of belugas in Cook Inlet at 312.

The previous year’s estimate was 284 whales. The increase is not enough to be scientifically significant, NOAA officials said. The aerial survey is conducted from a small plane with bubble windows, behind which scientists count the whales and make video recordings to come up with yearly estimates.

NOAA says estimates have been as low as 278 whales and as high as 366 in the past decade. The annual survey has been done since the early 1990s.

Speegle said NOAA is developing a recovery plan, which is expected to be completed by late spring. Recovery plan team members include scientists, citizens groups, Alaska Natives, and conservation and oil and gas development groups. The recovery plan will set out management actions with the goal being the survival of Cook Inlet’s belugas, Speegle said.

The Cook Inlet population has declined steadily since the 1980s from a high of about 1,300. The loss was accelerated between 1994 and 1998, when Alaska Natives harvested nearly half of the remaining 650 whales. Belugas have not bounced back despite a hunting ban.

Scientists said there was one new and interesting finding from last summer’s survey. A group of belugas was observed in a location where they had not been spotted in more than a decade. A group of 12 to 21 whales was first observed swimming north into upper Cook Inlet. They then moved into Trading Bay, where they remained.

“Beluga whales have not been observed in this area during our surveys since 2001,” said Kim Shelden, chief scientist of the survey.

The state of Alaska fought the endangered species listing, saying it would hurt economic development at the Port of Anchorage, as well as oil and natural gas development in nearby waters.

A federal judge last year affirmed the listing.

More in Local News

‘Come talk to me. Don’t jump, come talk to me’

State Patrol trooper Yaroslav Holodkov just happened to be driving by when he saw a suicidal man.

Marysville educators reach out to a newly traumatized school

Several affected by shootings in 2014 offered to talk with counterparts in Eastern Washington.

Serial killer wannabe admits trying to kill man she met online

She told police she planned to rip out her victim’s heart and eat it — and would continue killing.

Hurry! Target will take your old car seat, but not for long

The seats will be taken apart and the various materials recycled.

Sheriff’s Office receives national recognition

Sheriff accepts award “notable achievements in the field of highway safety” over the past year.

Edmonds-Woodway High School briefly locked down

A student tried to stop a fight and a boy, 16, responded by threatening the student with a knife.

Study considers making it legal to grow marijuana at home

The Liquor and Cannabis Board is considering two scenarios for allowing a minimal number of plants.

Minutes mattered the day Pat Ward was brought back to life

The Mukilteo police and fire chaplain died at breakfast. She got a second chance thanks to a waitress.

Front Porch

EVENTS Return of the Salmon celebration All are invited to Sultan on… Continue reading

Most Read