The Battle for the Beluga

Do Cook Inlet beluga whales deserve endangered species protection?

This April, the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service proposed listing the Cook Inlet beluga whale population as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, a move lauded by conservation groups. The Cook Inlet population has suffered in recent decades, as its numbers have dropped from approximately 1,300 in the 1970s to just about 300 last year. The NOAA says the population could be extinct in 100 years.

But local politicians aren't as gung-ho about protecting the beluga, saying it could hurt homeowners and put undue pressure on the local fishing industry. Anchorage's mayor says ruling the beluga as endangered would result in up to $600 million in required upgrades to a local waste treatment plant, costs which would be passed on to consumers. Then there's this incomprehensible statement from Republican Senator Ted Stevens: "If it should it has impacts on sport fishing. It's gonna have an impact on commercial fishing. It's going to have an impact on really the whole concept of what is the habits that they must have."

It should be noted that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population is not a separate species, but one of five beluga populations in U.S. waters. Globally, there are about 100,000 beluga whales. The Cook Inlet population is easily the most threatened group of belugas.

The NOAA is taking public comments until August 2 before making its final recommendation, and an official ruling is expected next April.

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