Why are Cook Inlet beluga populations declining?



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    The IUCN listed the Cook Inlet population of belugas as Critically Endangered in 2006. But the US government is just now considering listing this population as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since efforts to halt their decline by cutting subsistence hunts have failed. Since 1999 only five Cook Inlet beluga have been taken. In fact, in three out of the last nine years, Native Americans volunteered not to hold their annual subsistence hunt at all.
    Seismic exploration for gas and oil make ocean noise a concern for this species which depends on vocal interaction to maintain pod integrity and echolocation to find food. As if that weren’t enough, a sonar array in the inlet is being proposed to protect the bay from attack.
    Habitat loss is expected to continue to be a problem for the Cook Inlet beluga whales. The Port of Anchorage has expansion plans that include filling in 135 acres. A plan to build a bridge linking Anchorage and Point MacKenzie would further decrease habitat for the belugas and likely add to the ocean noise level. Giving these whales endangered status would allow critical habitat to be established for them. This designated habitat would then receive greater protection.
    Beluga whales have been called sea canaries because of their melodious vocalizations. Now these animals can be considered coal mine canaries-giving a warning of the condition of the waters in which they live. Proximity to Anchorage exposes the Cook Inlet belugas to pollution from runoff and sewage discharge and a nearby military bombing range adds to the toxin exposure.

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