Executive Summary

Recovering threatened and endangered species is more likely when there is a recovery plan to guide our actions. Traditional recovery plans are constrained to static 8.5 x 11″ pages for printing on paper or viewing as paper-sized PDFs. This format has several shortcomings: the static nature “encourages” plans to be rarely updated, dynamic data cannot be directly incorporated, and collaboration is constrained. We are exploring how to create web-based, dynamic recovery plans to address the shortcomings of traditional plans.

Here, we are translating the recovery plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whale from a traditional format (finalized 2016-12-27) to a dynamic web format. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be filling out the content to demonstrate the possibilities of web-based, dynamic recovery plans.

Current Status

The best available historical abundance estimate of 1,293 Cook Inlet beluga whales (CI belugas, Delphinapterus leucas) was obtained from an aerial survey conducted in 1979 (Calkins 1989). The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has adopted 1,300 as the value for the carrying capacity to be used for management purposes.

NMFS began conducting comprehensive and systematic aerial surveys of CI belugas in 1993. These surveys documented a decline in CI beluga abundance from 653 whales in 1994 to 347 whales in 1998, a decline of nearly 50%. This rapid decline was associated with a substantial, unregulated subsistence hunt.

In 1999, in response to this dramatic decline NMFS received one petition to designate CI belugas as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and two petitions to list them as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2000, NMFS designated the CI beluga stock as depleted under the MMPA, but determined that listing CI belugas as threatened or endangered under the ESA was not warranted at that time.

Subsequent cooperative efforts between NMFS and Alaska Native subsistence users dramatically reduced subsistence hunts beginning in 1999. This reduction in hunting should have allowed the CI beluga population to begin increasing at an expected growth rate of between 2% and 6% per year if subsistence harvest was the only factor limiting population growth; however, abundance data collected since 1999 indicated that the population did not increase as expected. This lack of population growth led NMFS to reevaluate the status of CI belugas. In October 2008, NMFS finalized the Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale (Conservation Plan; NMFS 2008a), as required by the MMPA for any species or stock designated as depleted. The Conservation Plan reviewed and assessed the known and possible threats influencing CI belugas. During that same month NMFS listed the CI beluga whale distinct population segment (DPS) as endangered under the ESA (73 FR 62919, October 22, 2008).

The most recent comprehensive survey for CI belugas from 2014 indicates a point estimate of 340 belugas, with the population continuing to show a negative trend since 1999 (a decline of 1.3% per year; Shelden et al. 2015a).

Threats to Recovery

CI belugas are the most reproductively and demographically isolated of all the Alaskan belugas, and are unique in Alaska given that their habitat, a semi-enclosed tidal estuary in southcentral Alaska, is in close proximity to the greatest concentration of Alaska’s human population. Belugas are predominately found in nearshore waters. The distribution of CI belugas has changed significantly since the 1970s, and the summer range has contracted to the upper Inlet in recent years, coincident with the decline in population size. Ten potential threat types are identified and assessed in this recovery plan, based on current knowledge of threat factors. Assessments were made based on the information and data gaps presented in the plan’s Background section. Climate change, while considered a potential threat to CI beluga recovery, is not addressed as a separate threat, but rather is discussed with respect to how it may affect each of the listed threats. The ten identified potential threats and their overall relative concern to the CI beluga population discussed in this plan include:

  • Threats of High Relative Concern
    • Catastrophic events (e.g., natural disasters; spills; mass strandings);
    • Cumulative effects of multiple stressors; and
    • Noise.
  • Threats of Medium Relative Concern
    • Disease agents (e.g., pathogens, parasites, and harmful algal blooms);
    • Habitat loss or degradation;
    • Reduction in prey; and
    • Unauthorized take.
  • Threats of Low Relative Concern
    • Pollution;
    • Predation; and
    • Subsistence hunting.

Recovery Plan

The ESA requires the preparation and implementation of recovery plans for all listed species, unless the Secretary of Commerce determines that doing so does not promote the recovery of the species. In 2010, NMFS began the process of developing a recovery plan for CI belugas by announcing its intent to prepare a recovery plan and soliciting public comments (75 FR 4528, January 28, 2010). In February 2010, NMFS prepared a recovery outline, which, in concert with the Conservation Plan, served as an interim guidance document to direct recovery efforts until a full recovery plan was finalized. In March 2010 NMFS convened a Recovery Team to aid in the development of a draft recovery plan for CI belugas. The Recovery Team was composed of two advisory groups: a Science Panel and a Stakeholder Panel. In March 2013, the Recovery Team provided NMFS with the first draft of the recovery plan. This marked the completion of the team’s work; therefore it disbanded and NMFS took responsibility for finalizing the recovery plan. NMFS released a final draft version of the recovery plan for public comment in May 2015 (80 FR 27925, May 15, 2015). During this public comment period, NMFS also obtained peer review of the draft recovery plan from five reviewers. NMFS considered all of the peer review and public comments and information received on the draft recovery plan in developing this final plan.

Recovery Strategy

We know the CI beluga population is not recovering as expected after the regulation of subsistence hunting in 1999, but we do not know why. In light of the CI belugas’ recent population decline, small overall population size, life history characteristics, and increasing number of potential threats, it is challenging to identify the most immediate needs for the recovery of CI belugas. Until we know which threats are limiting this species’ recovery, the strategy of this recovery plan is to focus recovery efforts on threats identified as of medium or high relative concern. This will focus efforts and resources on actions that are more likely to benefit CI beluga recovery. Therefore, the recovery criteria and recovery actions outlined in the following sections address the threats of medium (disease agents, habitat loss or degradation, reduction in prey, and unauthorized take) or high (catastrophic events, cumulative effects of multiple stressors, and noise) relative concern, and do not discuss in detail the threats of low relative concern. To ensure the recovery plan remains strategic, the status of threats ranked as low relative concern will be reassessed periodically to determine whether the significance of one or more of these threats has elevated to the point that recovery actions need to be defined.

The recovery actions in this recovery plan include research, management, monitoring, and education/outreach efforts, since a comprehensive approach to CI beluga recovery is likely to have greater success than focusing on any one type of action. There are also actions targeted at incorporating new information and conducting regular reassessments, making this recovery plan an adaptive management plan. Threats-based recovery actions attempt to improve our understanding of whether a particular threat is limiting recovery. The plan also includes recommended actions to eliminate or mitigate threats of medium or high relative concern, and to improve our understanding of, and ability to manage those threats. As such, the strategy of this recovery plan is to:

  • Continue to monitor the status of the CI beluga population and improve the understanding of CI beluga biology;
  • Improve the understanding of the effects of threats of medium or high relative concern on CI belugas;
  • Improve the management of threats of medium or high relative concern to reduce or eliminate the effects of those threats on CI belugas;
  • Periodically reassess whether the relative concern of each potential threat identified in this plan has changed over time;
  • Integrate research findings into current and future management actions; and
  • Keep the public informed and educated about the status of CI belugas, the threats limiting their recovery, and how the public can help achieve recovery of these whales.

Recovery Goals

The goal of this recovery plan is to guide efforts that achieve the recovery of CI belugas to a level sufficient to warrant their removal from the federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants under the ESA (i.e., delist) by meeting the recovery criteria and addressing threats. The intermediate goal is to guide efforts that result in reclassification of CI belugas from endangered to threatened (i.e., downlist). The determinations regarding whether these goals are met include consideration of the population’s risk of extinction and threats as identified under the ESA section 4(a)(1) factors. If a species is determined to be recovered, then the protections afforded by the ESA no longer apply, although other pertinent federal (e.g., MMPA) and state protections will still apply.

Recovery Objectives

Five factors identified in ESA section 4(a)(1) inform NMFS’s decision as to whether a species merits listing as threatened or endangered under the ESA (see Section I.B. History of the Listing Status of CI Belugas). These factors must be considered in listing decisions as well as downlisting and delisting, with objectives related to each factor included as part of the recovery criteria. The following recovery objectives were identified for CI belugas and linked to the five ESA section 4(a)(1) factors:

  • Ensure adequate habitat exists to support a recovered population of CI belugas. Habitat needs include sufficient quantity, quality, and accessibility of prey species (Factor A: the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range);
  • Ensure that commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational activities are not inhibiting the recovery of CI belugas (Factor B: overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes);
  • Ensure that the effects of diseases and disease agents on CI beluga reproduction and survival are not limiting the recovery of the CI beluga population (Factor C: disease or predation);
  • Ensure that regulatory mechanisms other than the ESA are adequate to prevent the recurrence of threats to the sustainability of CI belugas (Factor D: the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms); and
  • Continue monitoring the population to identify and mitigate any new natural or manmade factors effecting the recovery of CI belugas (Factor E: other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence).

Recovery Criteria

Under section 4(f)(1) of the ESA, recovery plans must contain objective, measurable criteria which, when met, would result in a determination that the species be delisted. This recovery plan contains both demographic criteria (e.g., population size and trend) and threats-based criteria (i.e., addressing the five ESA section 4(a)(1) factors) which would indicate that downlisting or delisting the species should be considered.

The threats-based recovery criteria are designed to evaluate the five factors described in the ESA listing determination for CI belugas, with objectives related to each factor included as part of the recovery criteria. The downlisting and delisting criteria specified in the recovery plan are organized according to the five factors, then by the threat types ranked as medium or high relative concern.

We note that recovery under the ESA is an iterative process with periodic analyses to provide feedback into the species’ listing status and progress toward recovery. The ESA requires a review of the status of each listed species at least once every five years after it is listed. Periodic review of the species may lead to updates or revisions to the recovery plan, changes in the listing status of the species, or delisting. While meeting all of the recovery criteria would indicate that the species should be delisted, it is possible that delisting could occur without meeting all of the recovery criteria if the best available information indicated that the species no longer met the definition of endangered or threatened. Changes to the species’ status and delisting would be made through additional rulemaking after considering the same five ESA factors considered in listing decisions, taking new information into account.

Summary of Recovery Criteria for CI Belugas
Demographic Criteria
Threats Based Criteria
Reclassified from Endangered to Threatened (i.e., downlisted) The abundance estimate for CI belugas is greater than or equal to 520 individuals, and there is 95% or greater probability that the most recent 25-year population abundance trend (where 25 years represents one full generation) is positive. AND The 10 downlisting threats-based criteria are satisfied (see Section V.C.1.b. Downlisting Threats-Based Criteria).
Reclassified to Recovered (i.e., delisted) The abundance estimate for CI belugas is greater than or equal to 780 individuals, and there is 95% or greater probability that the most recent 25-year population abundance trend (where 25 years represents one full generation) is positive. AND The 10 downlisting and 9 delisting threats-based criteria are satisfied (see Section V.C.1.b. Downlisting Threats-Based Criteria; and Section V.C.2.b. Delisting Threats-Based Criteria).

Recovery Actions

This recovery plan provides a listing of recommended research, management, and education/outreach actions targeted at recovering CI belugas. Overall, these actions are organized in two categories: 1) population monitoring, recovery plan implementation, and education/outreach actions; and 2) threats management actions. The population monitoring, recovery plan implementation, and education/outreach actions are designed to allow for the effective implementation of this recovery plan. Continued monitoring of the CI beluga population is essential to improve our understanding of the whales and as a means to determine if recovery of the CI beluga population is occurring. A multi-faceted education/outreach action is important to keep the public apprised of the status and outcome of the recovery actions. The threats management actions encompass actions aimed at assessing and managing the threats ranked as medium or high relative concern. Each of these threats has three subsets of actions: 1) actions to assess whether that threat is limiting CI beluga recovery; 2) actions that will improve the understanding of, and ability to manage that threat; and 3) actions that eliminate or mitigate that threat.

This recovery plan is a dynamic document that will change over time based on the progress of recovery and the availability of new information. As new information is obtained, additional actions may be identified and incorporated into the plan or some actions which are no longer relevant may be modified or omitted. As is the case for all recovery plans under the ESA, NMFS will review this plan regularly and will assess the relative success of these actions in protecting CI belugas. Recovery actions and criteria may be changed or added accordingly.

Implementation Schedule

The Implementation Schedule includes recovery action numbers, action descriptions, recovery priorities, parties responsible for funding and/or carrying out actions, duration of actions, and estimated costs. Costs are estimated for the fiscal year in thousands of 2016 dollars and are not corrected for inflation. The cost estimates do not imply that appropriate levels of funding will necessarily be available for all CI beluga recovery tasks. The Implementation Schedule (see Section VII) includes annual cost estimates for the first five years of plan implementation, in accordance with the standard five-year cycle of review and update or revision for all recovery plans. Any projections of total costs over the full recovery period are likely to be imprecise. The total cost of achieving recovery will be largely dependent upon how many of the threats management actions need to be implemented. Since that cannot be determined at this time, the total cost presented here assumes that every threat of medium or high relative concern will be found to be limiting recovery and that every action addressing those threats will be implemented. Thus, we expect the total cost estimate presented here is high, and the actual costs will be lower if actions addressing some threats are not implemented because those threats have been determined to not be limiting the recovery of CI belugas. It is expected that recovery may take at least two generations (50 years); therefore, for ongoing actions costs have only been estimated for the next 50 years. If every identified recovery action must be implemented, and if it takes 50 years to recover CI belugas, then the estimated cost of implementing this entire recovery program is approximately $76.8 million (in 2016 dollars).