Introduction

In response to a decline in the CI beluga population between 1994 and 1998, NMFS was petitioned to designate CI belugas as depleted under the MMPA and/or as endangered under the ESA. In 2000, NMFS designated CI belugas as depleted under the MMPA, but determined that listing CI belugas as endangered or threatened under the ESA was not warranted at that time. NMFS later reevaluated the status of CI belugas and, in 2008, listed the CI beluga whale distinct population segment (DPS) as endangered under the ESA. Throughout the recovery plan, the term “CI beluga population,” “CI belugas,” and “CI beluga whales” refer to the CI beluga whale DPS.

In listing the CI beluga whale DPS as endangered, NMFS referenced the five factors set forth in section 4(a)(1) of the ESA: 1) the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; 2) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; 3) disease or predation; 4) the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; and 5) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

The ESA listing of CI belugas as endangered led to the 2011 designation of their critical habitat. The ESA requires all federal agencies to consult with NMFS regarding any action they authorize, fund, or carry out to ensure that the action does not jeopardize the continued existence of the species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of designated critical habitat.

This Recovery Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale begins with background information on CI beluga life history, population size and trends, and known sources of mortality or injury. It then discusses the current threats to the population’s recovery, and presents the recovery strategy, goals, and criteria. It concludes with the recovery program, which includes recovery actions and an implementation schedule containing priorities and estimated costs for the actions.

Importance

The Importance of Belugas to Cook Inlet

Cook Inlet belugas (CI belugas; Delphinapterus leucas), which have co-existed with people since the first indigenous hunters and fishermen came to the shores of Cook Inlet, hold an important place in both the regional ecosystem and the lives of those who have depended upon and interacted with them throughout that long, shared history. Alaska’s Native people have relied upon CI belugas for food, other materials, cultural continuity, and community cohesion; indeed, there is a significant desire to rebuild a beluga population capable of again supporting subsistence use. For the last fifty years the white whales have held a primary position as remarkable animals people enjoy living near and observing in Cook Inlet. Apart from the belugas found in Canada’s St. Lawrence Estuary (SLE), CI belugas are the only other beluga population in the world to live in close proximity to urban centers and to be easily accessed via a road system.

Oral histories collected by Dutton et al. (2012) document both the values that today’s Alaskans place on living beside these belugas and the opportunities that were lost as the CI beluga population declined. Visitors to Alaska also enjoy being able to watch belugas in the wild. Stories, artwork, the names of streets and businesses all emphasize these belugas’ role within our lives and cultures. In addition to their subsistence, cultural, economic (tourism), and spiritual values, CI belugas play a role as an indicator of environmental health and resilience in a region undergoing considerable natural and human-related change.

This recovery plan represents a significant step in increasing our understanding of the CI beluga population and assisting it to rebuild—not just for its own sake or the sake of the ecosystem, but also for the sake of future human generations.

Listing History

History of the Listing Status of Belugas in Cook Inlet

In response to the dramatic decline in the population size of the CI beluga stock between 1994 and 1998, NMFS initiated a status review of CI belugas on November 19, 1998. In early 1999, NMFS received three petitions: one from Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) to designate CI belugas as depleted under the MMPA and two from tribal and non-governmental organizations to list the population as endangered under the ESA. On May 31, 2000, NMFS designated the CI beluga stock as below its optimum sustainable population level (OSP) and, hence, depleted as defined in the MMPA (65 FR 34590). Based on the best scientific data available at the time, NMFS determined that the CI beluga stock qualified as a DPS under the ESA based on genetic distinction from other Alaskan beluga stocks, but NMFS further determined that listing the DPS as endangered or threatened under the ESA was not warranted (65 FR 38778, June 22, 2000).

Concerned that the stock had not recovered as expected, on March 24, 2006, NMFS announced its intention to reevaluate the status of the CI beluga under the ESA (71 FR 14836). The 2006 status review (Hobbs et al. 2006) drew several significant conclusions about the status of the CI beluga. First, the review concluded that the reduced summer range into the upper Inlet makes CI belugas far more vulnerable to catastrophic events that have the potential to kill or injure a significant portion of the population. Second, the population did not grow as anticipated after imposition of subsistence harvest reductions and regulations beginning in 1999 (which precluded any harvest in most years), but had continued to decline 4.1% per year from 1999 through 2006. Third, should this discrete population not survive, it was deemed highly unlikely that other belugas would repopulate Cook Inlet. Based on models that incorporated the latest data available at the time, the 2006 status review predicted a 68% probability that belugas in Cook Inlet would continue to decline and become extinct within the next 300 years (with a 26% probability of extinction within the next 100 years), unless factors that determine beluga whale growth and survival were altered to improve the stock’s chances to recover (Hobbs et al. 2006).

Based on the findings of the 2006 status review and based on consideration of factors that may affect this species, on April 20, 2007, NMFS published a proposed rule to list the CI beluga whale DPS as an endangered species under the ESA (72 FR 19854). Subsequently, in April 2008 NMFS completed an updated status review (Hobbs et al. 2008) that supported the conclusions set forth in the 2006 report. The April 2008 status review report documented higher probabilities of extinction than those presented in 2006; the 2008 modeling showed a 79% probability of extinction within 300 years and a 39% probability of extinction within 100 years. On April 22, 2008, NMFS announced a 6-month extension of the deadline for issuing the final ESA listing determination until October 20, 2008, (73 FR 21578) to allow for consideration of the 2008 abundance estimate. In October 2008, NMFS published a supplemental status review (Hobbs and Shelden 2008) which updated the April 2008 review by considering the 2008 CI beluga population abundance estimate. The general conclusions of the October 2008 supplemental status review were similar to the 2006 and 2008 status reviews; but the inclusion of the 2008 abundance estimate resulted in a 26% probability of extinction in 100 years and a 70% probability of extinction within 300 years.

On October 22, 2008 NMFS issued the final determination to list the CI beluga whale DPS as endangered under the ESA (73 FR 62919). This final listing rule included the following statements regarding the ESA section 4(a)(1) factors:

A. The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range:

“Concern is warranted about the continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet and the cumulative effects on important beluga whale habitat. Ongoing activities that may impact this habitat include: (1) continued oil and gas exploration, development, and production; and (2) industrial activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants (e.g., petroleum, seafood processing waste, ship ballast discharge, effluent from municipal wastewater treatment systems, and runoff from urban, mining, and agricultural areas). Destruction and modification of habitat may result in ‘effective mortalities’ by reducing carrying capacity or fitness of individual whales, with the same consequence to the population survival as direct mortalities. Therefore, threatened destruction and modification of CI beluga whale DPS habitat contributes to its endangered status.” (73 FR 62927)

B. Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes:

“A brief commercial whaling operation existed along the west side of upper Cook Inlet during the 1920s, where 151 belugas were harvested in five years (Mahoney and Sheldon, 2000). There was also a sport (recreational) harvest for beluga whales in Cook Inlet prior to enactment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972. It is possible that some residual effects for this harvest may remain and may be a factor in the present status of this stock.

Alaska Natives have legally harvested CI beluga whales prior to and after passage of the MMPA in 1972. The effect of past harvest practices on the CI beluga whale is significant. While subsistence harvest occurred at unknown levels for decades, the observed decline from 1994 through 1998 and the reported harvest (including estimates of whales which were struck but lost, and assumed to have perished) indicated these harvest levels were unsustainable. Annual subsistence take by Alaska Natives during 1995 to 1998 averaged 77 whales (Angliss and Lodge 2002). The harvest was as high as 20% of the population in 1996. Subsistence removals reported during the 1990s are sufficient to account for the declines observed in this population and must be considered as a factor in the proposed classification of the CI beluga whale DPS as endangered.” (73 FR 62927)

C. Disease or predation:

“Killer whales are thought to take at least one CI beluga per year (Shelden et al., 2003). The loss of more than one beluga whale annually could impede recovery, particularly if total mortality due to predation were close to the recruitment level in the DPS.” (73 FR 62927)

D. The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms:

“Cook Inlet beluga whales are hunted by Alaskan Natives for subsistence needs. The absence of legal authority to control subsistence harvest prior to 1999 is considered a contributing factor to the CI beluga whale DPS’s decline. NMFS promulgated regulations on the long-term subsistence harvest of CI beluga whales on October 15, 2008 (73 FR 60976). These regulations constitute an effective conservation plan regarding Alaska Native subsistence harvest, but they are not comprehensive in addressing the many other issues now confronting CI beluga whales. At present, regulations cover the short-term subsistence harvest.” (73 FR 62928)

E. Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence:

“Cook Inlet beluga whales are known to strand along mudflats in upper Cook Inlet, both individually and in number. The cause for this is uncertain, but may have to do with the extreme tidal fluctuations, predator avoidance, or pursuit of prey, among other possible causes. We have recorded stranding events of more than 200 CI beluga whales. Mortality during stranding is not uncommon. We consider stranding to be a major factor establishing this DPS as endangered.” (73 FR 62928)

The MMPA requires the Secretary of Commerce to prepare a Conservation Plan for any species or stock designated as depleted under the MMPA and for which NMFS has management responsibility. In October 2008, NMFS finalized the Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale (NMFS 2008a), which reviewed and assessed the known and possible threats to CI belugas. The Conservation Plan listed natural threats (including stranding events, predation, parasitism, disease, and environmental change) and potential human-caused threats (including subsistence harvest, poaching, fishing, pollution, vessel traffic, tourism and whale watching, coastal development, noise, oil and gas activities, and scientific research). In addition to identifying and assessing threats, the Conservation Plan also defined strategies for restoring the CI belugas to OSP and identified specific conservation actions to aid in that effort. The goal of the Conservation Plan is to conserve and restore the CI beluga whale population to its minimum OSP of 780 whales. NMFS has been working with its partners to implement conservation actions identified in the Conservation Plan, and has continued to use that document as a guide for conserving CI belugas. The Conservation Plan remains in effect, insofar as it covers efforts to rebuild the CI beluga stock to the point that it is no longer considered depleted under the MMPA (which in some cases may not be synonymous with no longer being listed under the ESA).

Appendix A and Appendix B provide more information regarding federal actions, regulations, and existing protective measures and conservation efforts pertaining to CI belugas. Existing conservation efforts have not been sufficient for CI belugas since the population has continued to decline.

Critical Habitat

Designation of Critical Habitat for CI Belugas

Figure 1. Critical Habitat for CIB
Critical habitat is designated in two areas. Source: NMFS Alaska Region Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Critical Habitat webpage at: http://www.alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/pr/cib-critical-habitat. (76 FR 20180, April 11, 2011)

On April 11, 2011, NMFS published a final rule designating two areas (minus an exclusion zone) of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the CI beluga (76 FR 20180; 50 CFR part 226.220). These two areas encompass 7,800 square kilometers (km2) (3,013 square miles [mi2]) of marine habitat (Figure 1).

In designating critical habitat, NMFS evaluated physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the species and which may require special management considerations or protection. Under NMFS regulations, these features may include: 1) space for individual and population growth, and for normal behavior; 2) food, water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological requirements; 3) cover or shelter; 4) sites for breeding, reproduction, rearing of offspring, germination, or seed dispersal; and generally 5) habitats that are protected from disturbance or are representative of the historic geographical and ecological distributions of the species. Based on the best scientific data available of the ecology and natural history of CI belugas and their conservation needs, NMFS determined the following physical or biological features are essential to the conservation of this species:

  1. Intertidal and subtidal waters of Cook Inlet with depths less than 30 feet mean lower low water (9.1 m) and within 5 mi (8 km) of high and medium flow anadromous fish streams.
  2. Primary prey species consisting of four species of Pacific salmon (Chinook, sockeye, chum, and coho), Pacific eulachon, Pacific cod, walleye pollock, saffron cod, and yellowfin sole.
  3. Waters free of toxins or other agents of a type and amount harmful to CI beluga whales.
  4. Unrestricted passage within or between the critical habitat areas.
  5. Waters with in-water noise below levels resulting in the abandonment of critical habitat areas by CI beluga whales.

The critical habitat areas are bounded on the upland by the Mean High Water (MHW) line, except for the lower reaches of specific tributary rivers. Critical habitat does not extend into the tidally influenced channels of tributary waters of Cook Inlet, with the exceptions noted in the descriptions of each critical habitat area.

Recovery

Recovery and Recovery Plans

Section 4(f) of the ESA requires the preparation and implementation of recovery plans for all listed species with certain exceptions. Under the ESA, each recovery plan must contain at a minimum:

  • A description of such site-specific management actions as may be necessary to achieve the plan’s goal for the conservation and survival of the species;
  • Objective, measurable criteria that, when met, would result in a determination that the species be removed from the list; and
  • Estimates of the time required and the cost to carry out those measures needed to achieve the plan’s goal and achieve intermediate steps toward that goal.

In addition, the Interim Endangered and Threatened Species Recovery Planning Guidance developed by NMFS (NMFS 2010) stipulates that recovery plans must include a concise summary of the current status of the species and its life history, and an assessment of the factors that led to the population decline and/or which are impeding recovery. It is also important that the plan includes a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation program for NMFS to gauge effectiveness of recovery measures and overall progress toward recovery. The overall goal of a recovery plan is to guide efforts that achieve recovery of the species such that it may be removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife (50 CFR 17.11).

While similar in content, recovery plans under the ESA and conservation plans under the MMPA do not necessarily have the same end goal. As discussed later, the goal of recovery plans is to aid in species’ recovery such that ESA protection is no longer needed. The goal of MMPA conservation plans is to aid in the status of depleted population being upgraded so they are no longer considered “depleted.”

The Recovery Plan for CI Belugas

It is challenging to identify the most immediate needs for recovery of CI belugas because little is known about the effects of potential threats to recovery of this population. The documented decline of the CI beluga population during the mid-1990s has been attributed to subsistence harvest removals at a level that this small population could not sustain (65 FR 34590, May 31, 2000; NMFS 2008a, 2008b). NMFS and subsistence users dramatically reduced subsistence takes; such a reduction should have allowed the CI beluga population to rebound if subsistence harvest was the only factor preventing population growth. However, abundance data collected since 1999 indicate that the population is not increasing as expected. It is unknown what specific factor(s) continue to limit growth and recovery of this population. It may be that the cumulative impacts of several threats are impeding recovery to a greater extent than the sum of the individual impacts of those threats.

This plan addresses each of the potential threats based on our current knowledge. In addition to examining threats, this plan provides background information on CI beluga life history, status, and existing protective measures. Furthermore, this plan identifies a strategy, goals, criteria, and actions targeted at recovering the species. Priorities and estimated costs for the recovery actions are provided in an implementation schedule.

The recovery actions recommended in this plan are based on the best available science at the time the plan was written. Research and monitoring are key components of the plan and will make an adaptive management approach possible. Recovery of CI belugas will require a long- term cooperative effort that will evolve as more is learned from research and monitoring. Continued monitoring of the status of the population will assist in evaluating the effectiveness of management actions. Research will help refine recovery actions and identify new actions to fill data gaps about the threats. An adaptive management approach will also provide information to adjust priorities as recovery progresses, and will allow the plan to be periodically modified and updated.

The process NMFS used to develop a recovery plan for CI belugas is discussed in Appendix C.