Recovery

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. Before that can be determined, more information must be obtained about basic CI beluga biology and effects of potential threats on CI belugas.

This complex situation requires a comprehensive, integrated, adaptive recovery strategy. This strategy consists of data acquisition (on CI beluga biology, life history, ecology, and anthropogenic activities), integration of data sets from multiple sources, and application of these results to management (e.g., development and implementation of mitigation to avoid or reduce adverse effects), with continuous feedback between research and management actions.

In light of the recent decline, small population size, life history characteristics, and increasing number and magnitude of potential threats, it is challenging to identify the most expedient way to achieve recovery of CI belugas. We recognize that recovery will not occur immediately and will require a prolonged effort that is capable of adapting as new information becomes available, threats are mitigated or new threats arise, or the status of the CI beluga population changes. Thus, we structured this plan to emphasize addressing the most critical elements as a means to first curb the population decline and stabilize the population, then incorporate adaptive management reviews and revisions in the future to work toward population growth and recovery. Given the lack of clear reasons for the failure to recover following the regulation of the subsistence harvest in 1999, a balance must be struck when allocating scarce resources in our efforts to bring about recovery of this species. In an effort to strike this balance, we assert that the most expedient way to achieve recovery is by first addressing those threats identified as of medium or high relative concern (see Table 6). Doing so is not meant to indicate threats of low relative concern are ruled out as threats, nor is it meant to preclude or discourage actions taken by NMFS or other entities to address threats initially identified as being of low relative concern. Rather, if a choice has to be made between addressing a threat of high/medium relative concern or a threat of low relative concern, we recommend the resources be allocated to addressing the higher ranked threat.

The recovery criteria and recovery actions outlined in the following sections address the threats of medium or high relative concern, and do not discuss in detail threats of low relative concern. Nevertheless, to ensure the recovery plan remains strategic, a recovery action is included that calls for periodic reassessment of the threats considered of low relative concern to determine if the status of those threats has elevated to the point specified recovery actions need to be defined. Furthermore, by adopting an adaptive recovery strategy, NMFS does not intend to require a protracted, formal process for reclassifying the severity of individual threats to CI belugas prior to taking actions to address them. Rather, we will seek guidance from experts in how to best respond to new information that has implications upon the severity of threats to CI belugas, and we will endeavor to follow that guidance.

The actions in this recovery plan include research, management, monitoring, and education/outreach efforts that take a comprehensive approach to addressing CI beluga recovery. Threats-based recovery actions attempt to improve our understanding of threats and the population-level consequences of threats; in addition, these recovery actions attempt to improve our ability to manage and eliminate or mitigate threats.

Recognizing the importance of keeping the public apprised of the status and outcome of the recovery actions, the recovery strategy also identifies a multi-faceted education and outreach action. In addition to addressing the threats, we recognize the importance of continuously monitoring the CI beluga population, and have therefore included recovery actions specific to population monitoring goals. To summarize, 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 effect 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.

Section 4(f)(1)(B) of the ESA requires that each recovery plan contain objective, measurable criteria which, when met, would result in a determination that the species be delisted.

Recovery Goals

The ultimate goal of this plan is to achieve the recovery of CI belugas to a level sufficient to warrant their removal from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants under the ESA (delist). The intermediate goal is to reclassify CI belugas from endangered to threatened (downlist). To downlist CI belugas from endangered to threatened, NMFS must determine that the population is no longer “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range” (16 U.S.C. § 1532(6)). To delist CI belugas, NMFS must further determine that the population is not “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range” (16 U.S.C. § 1532(20)). These determinations include consideration of the population’s abundance and demographic parameters, taken together with threats as identified under the ESA section 4(a)(1) factors considered for listing.

Recovery Objectives

When considering the listing of a species, five statutory factors (see Section I.B. History of the Listing Status of Belugas in Cook Inlet) are analyzed. These same factors must be considered in 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 listing factors:

  • Ensure adequate habitat exists to support a recovered population of CI belugas. Habitat needs include sufficient quantity, quality, and accessibility of prey species (Listing Factor A);
  • Ensure that commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational activities are not inhibiting the recovery of CI belugas (Listing Factor B);
  • 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 (Listing Factor C);
  • Ensure that regulatory mechanisms other than the ESA are adequate to manage threats to the sustainability of CI belugas (Listing Factor D); and
  • Continue monitoring the population to identify and mitigate any new natural or manmade factors affecting the recovery of CI belugas (Listing Factor E).

Recovery Criteria

Section 4(f)(1) of the ESA requires recovery plans to incorporate “objective, measurable criteria which, when met, would result in a determination…that the species be removed from the list” (16 U.S.C. § 1533(f)). For many species, these criteria have focused primarily on a population size, trend, or some other demographic factor, but neglected to address the threats that resulted in the need to list the species. This recovery plan contains both demographic criteria and threats-based criteria for downlisting and delisting. All the demographic and threats-based criteria listed below must be met in order for CI belugas to be considered “recovered”; however, only the downlisting criteria must be met for consideration for reclassification from “endangered” to “threatened” (Table 9). The threats-based downlisting and delisting criteria below are organized according to the five ESA section 4(a)(1) factors (labeled A-E, respectively).

We note that recovery under the ESA is an iterative process with periodic analyses to provide feedback into the species’ status and progress towards recovery. The ESA requires a review of the status of each listed species at least once every five years. 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 rulemaking after considering the same five ESA factors considered in listing decisions, taking new information into account.

Downlisting Criteria

Reclassifying CI Belugas from “Endangered” to “Threatened”

CI belugas may be considered for reclassifying from endangered to threatened (i.e., downlisted) when all of the following demographic and threats-based criteria have been met. The threats- based recovery criteria are designed to evaluate the five ESA section 4(a)(1) factors and are organized accordingly (labeled A–E). There are no downlisting criteria identified for Listing Factor C (disease or predation) because we concluded that if the threats under the other listing factors are ameliorated and the population has achieved the demographic criterion for downlisting, then CI belugas will have made sufficient progress toward recovery such that reclassification from endangered to threatened may be considered (however, with respect to delisting, a recovery criterion for Listing Factor C is described below).

Downlisting Demographic Criterion

1. The abundance estimate for CI belugas is greater than or equal to 520 individuals, and there is a 95% or greater probability that the most recent 25-year population abundance trend (where 25 years represents one full generation) is positive.

Justification: For long-term sustainability, a recovering population must show adequate population size and positive population growth over a timeframe that is long enough to encompass expected environmental variability. In the absence of better information, NMFS considers the historical abundance estimate of 1,300 whales to be the best estimate of the carrying capacity of CI belugas. We have no data at this time to indicate whether this carrying capacity may have changed. The threshold of 520 whales (40% of carrying capacity) represents the approximate mid-point between the lowest reported abundance estimate for CI belugas (278 belugas; 21% of carrying capacity) and the abundance level at which delisting may be considered (780 belugas; 60% carrying capacity); in addition, it is a level at which the population should not be considered in danger of extinction, assuming there is also statistical confidence the population has exhibited positive growth over the previous generation (previous 25 years) and threats have been adequately addressed. A 25-year timeframe was selected for population growth because it is a biologically-based time period that is expected to reasonably encompass environmental variability affecting the population. We chose the 95% probability level for a positive population trend because this level would provide a widely accepted degree of confidence that the population trend is positive. We recognize there is variability around survey point estimates, and a single population point estimate may over- or under-estimate the true population size. Survey variance should be taken into consideration as the population size approaches 520 to help ensure that consideration of downlisting is not based on anomalous conditions and accounts for the population trend over a full generation. The longer a population sustains a positive growth rate, the more confident we can be that the population is likely to continue to grow and become stable in the future and is resilient to stochastic events.

Downlisting Threats-Based Criteria

Listing Factor A: The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of its Habitat or Range

Objective: Measures are in place to evaluate and ensure adequate habitat exists to support a recovered population of CI belugas. Habitat needs include sufficient quantity, quality, and accessibility of prey species to support a stable or growing population at the identified demographic criterion level.

A.1 Ninety-five percent of CI belugas sampled within the most recent 25 years are determined by cetacean experts to display no signs of poor nutrition, indicating a very high degree of confidence that nutrition is not limiting CI beluga recovery.

A.2 Sufficient prey are available to, at a minimum, sustain CI belugas at the identified demographic criterion level. This determination shall take into consideration belugas’ energetic requirements, accounting for variances due to age, sex, and reproductive status, and the specific prey available to CI belugas. Absent information specific to CI belugas, estimates of the energetic requirements of belugas in other wild populations or belugas in captivity may be used as proxy values in this determination.


Listing Factor B: Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or Educational Purposes

Objective: Ensure that commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational activities are not inhibiting the recovery of CI belugas.

B.1 All research activities in Cook Inlet that may affect CI belugas implement protocols that avoid reductions in the population’s recovery rate.


Listing Factor C: Disease or Predation

Objective: 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. If the threats under the other listing factors are ameliorated and the population has achieved the demographic criterion, then no recovery criteria would be necessary for this listing factor to consider reclassification of CI belugas from endangered to threatened (however, with respect to delisting, a recovery criterion for this listing factor is described below).


Listing Factor D: The Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

Objective: Ensure that regulatory mechanisms other than the ESA are adequate to manage threats to the sustainability of CI belugas.

D.1 Cook Inlet fisheries management programs account for the energetic needs of CI belugas and allow for adequate available prey to sustain a recovering population (i.e., accounting for beluga prey availability as opposed to focusing solely on prey escapement goals).
D.2 Oil and hazardous substance spill prevention and response plans specifically address protections for CI belugas.
D.3 Subsistence harvest is managed in accordance with the Final Rule for the Taking of Cook Inlet Alaska Beluga Whale Stock by Alaska Natives (73 FR 60976, October 15, 2008), and the harvest is managed to ensure that it does not cause a measurable reduction in the rate of CI beluga recovery.
D.4 Management actions address cumulative effects, as they become known, in a way that promotes recovery of CI belugas.
D.5 CI beluga foraging and reproductive habitats (e.g., calving, nursing) are protected through appropriate management measures (e.g., time and area closures) to ensure the integrity of these habitats for meeting the needs of a growing CI beluga population.
D.6 Management actions address and reduce the effects of anthropogenic noise on CI belugas and their habitat.


Listing Factor E: Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting its Continued Existence

Objective: Continue monitoring the population to identify and mitigate any new natural or manmade factors affecting the recovery of CI belugas.

E.1 A comprehensive stranding response program for CI belugas:

  1. is implemented in partnership with the CI beluga stranding network members;
  2. promotes faster notification of, and responses to, all CI beluga strandings (dead or live);
  3. establishes robust protocols for responding to live strandings and/or tracking belugas after a live stranding event;
  4. collects data to determine cause of death (e.g., disease, injury, predations, auditory damage, etc.); and
  5. includes annual meetings or drills to review and practice stranding response protocols.

Delisting Criteria

For Considering CI Belugas “Recovered”

CI belugas may be considered for “delisting” and hence, recovered (i.e., no longer classified as an endangered or threatened species) when, in addition to meeting the downlisting criteria above, the following demographic and threats-based delisting criteria are also met. The threats-based recovery criteria are designed to evaluate the five ESA section 4(a)(1) factors and thus are organized accordingly (labeled A–E).

Delisting Demographic Criteria

1. The abundance estimate for CI belugas is greater than or equal to 780 individuals, and there is a 95% or greater probability that the most recent 25-year population abundance trend (where 25 years represents one full generation) is positive.

Justification: For management purposes, NMFS considers the historical abundance estimate of 1,300 whales to be the best estimate of the carrying capacity of CI belugas. We have no data at this time to indicate whether this carrying capacity may have changed. The threshold of 780 CI belugas (60% of carrying capacity) is the approximate mid-point between the lowest reported abundance estimate for CI belugas (278 belugas; 21% of carrying capacity) and the estimated carrying capacity of 1,300 whales; in addition, it is a level at which the population would be considered unlikely to become endangered within the foreseeable future within all or a significant portion of its range, assuming the population has exhibited statistically significant positive growth over the previous generation (previous 25 years) and threats have been adequately addressed. This is also the population level at which NMFS would reconsider the depleted classification of CI belugas under the MMPA. A 25-year timeframe was selected for population growth because it is a biologically-based time period that is expected to reasonably encompass environmental variability affecting the population. We chose the 95% probability level for a positive population trend because this level would provide a widely accepted degree of confidence that the population trend is positive. We recognize there is variability around survey point estimates, and a single population point estimate may over- or under-estimate the true population size. Survey variance should be taken into consideration as the population size approaches 780 to help ensure that consideration of delisting is not based on anomalous conditions and accounts for the population trend over a full generation. The longer a population sustains a positive growth rate, the more confident we can be that the population is likely to continue to grow and become stable in the future and is resilient to stochastic events.

Delisting Threats-Based Criteria

Listing Factor A: The Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of its Habitat or Range

Objective: Ensure adequate habitat exists to support a recovered population of CI belugas. Habitat needs include sufficient availability (i.e., quantity, quality, and accessibility) of prey to sustain the population at the identified demographic criterion level.

A.1 The quantity, quality, and accessibility of prey available to CI belugas are sufficient to sustain a recovered population for the foreseeable future (as determined, for example, by beluga-specific energetics models and projections of prey availability in Cook Inlet).
A.2 The summer range of CI belugas has expanded so that 95% of CI belugas documented during comprehensive Inlet-wide summer aerial surveys are found within an area comparable to the area documented by Rugh et al. (2010) for the 95% distribution during the time period 1993–1997 (see Figure 7 in this plan). An expansion of the CI beluga summer range back to historic extent will reduce susceptibility of the entire population to most threats, and is a likely indicator of recovery. For this assessment, the CI belugas’ summer range should be determined using at least the most recent six-year time period, and based on at least three different years’ abundance surveys.


Listing Factor B: Overutilization for Commercial, Recreational, Scientific, or Educational Purposes

Objective: Ensure that commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational activities are not inhibiting the recovery of CI belugas.

B.1 The best available scientific data (e.g., via a population model or another scientifically rigorous assessment method) indicate that commercial, recreational, educational, or scientific activities are not having negative population-level effects on CI belugas and that the effects of these activities are not expected to result in a population decline post- delisting.


Listing Factor C: Disease or Predation

Objective: Ensure that the effects of diseases and disease agents on CI beluga reproduction and survival are not reducing the rate of recovery of the CI beluga population.

C.1 Known CI beluga deaths due to disease agents (e.g., pathogens, parasites, and HABs) during the most recent 10 years are sufficiently below CI beluga recruitment levels to allow for population growth, even when deaths due to other causes are included.


Listing Factor D: The Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

Objective: Ensure that regulatory mechanisms other than the ESA are adequate to manage threats to the sustainability of CI belugas.

D.1 A written agreement signed by NMFS and the State of Alaska is implemented which describes: how the State’s fishery management plans for Cook Inlet salmon and eulachon are linked to goals for stock-specific spawning escapements that provide sustained yield for harvest and account for prey needed by belugas (and other ecosystem components), including quantity and temporal availability of prey; how such plans minimize the take of CI belugas pursuant to fishery activities in State waters of Cook Inlet; and how future actions taken by the State will comport with the MMPA.
D.2 A cooperative program, which includes coordination among federal, state, tribal, and local authorities, is implemented with a goal of mitigating effects from human activities in Cook Inlet and with measures in place to ensure such human activities, especially those which are noise-producing, do not result in negative population-level effects on CI belugas.


Listing Factor E: Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting its Continued Existence

Objective: Continue monitoring the population to identify and mitigate any new natural or manmade factors affecting the recovery of CI belugas.

E.1 A post-delisting monitoring plan for CI belugas is developed and approved prior to delisting.
E.2 Analysis of information available about the effects of stranding-associated morbidity and mortalities and other non-anthropogenic threats determines that such threats are not having negative population-level effects on CI belugas and that such threats are not expected to result in a population decline post-delisting.
E.3 Information available regarding cumulative effects of multiple stressors indicates that they are not having negative population-level effects on CI belugas and that they are not expected to result in a population decline post-delisting.

Table 9: Recovery Criteria Summary

Table 9. Criteria for considering reclassification (from endangered to threatened, or from threatened to not listed) for CI belugas.
Status
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).