The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today that it is listing the Cook Inlet beluga whale population as an endangered species.
“Listing the Cook Inlet beluga whales means any federal agency that funds, authorizes, or carries out new projects or activities that may affect the whales in the area must first consult with NOAA’s Fisheries Service to determine the potential effects on the whales,” NOAA said. “A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.”
The agency said that it will identify habitat essential to the conservation of Cook Inlet belugas in a separate rulemaking within a year.
NOAA’s proposal in April 2007 to list the Cook Inlet belugas sparked an intense debate between those who support NOAA’s view that the whale population is probably in terminal decline and those who think that the population is showing signs of recovery following the regulation of subsistence beluga hunting in the Inlet since 1998.
Annual NOAA surveys show the estimated beluga population dropping from 653 in 1994 to a low of 278 in 2005. The estimated population was 375 in both 2007 and 2008. NOAA has said that the numbers indicate a continuing but perhaps slowing decline. Others have commented that it would take several years for the whale population to recover from subsistence hunting in the early 1990s and that the latest data indicate that the population has stabilized.
The listing decision could impact a broad range of activities around the Cook Inlet, including oil industry operations, planned development at the Port of Anchorage and wastewater treatment at Anchorage.
See full story in Oct. 26 issue of Petroleum News, available to subscribers online at noon, Friday, Oct. 24 at www.PetroleumNews.com