Cook Inlet could have a new group of salmon users joining recreational, commercial, subsistence and personal use fishermen: endangered beluga whales.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, wants the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to start considering the dietary needs of Cook Inlet beluga in management plans, part of a nationwide Species in the Spotlight project aimed to boost eight different species to the point of delisting them from the status as a threatened species.
In a press release, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game called the plan “unrealistic,” and the criteria for recovery “untenable.” The department stated the criteria would make the recovery plan, and the acceptance of the plan by stakeholders, impossible to achieve.
“Under the NMFS recovery plan, Cook Inlet belugas would be down-listed to threatened status when the population reaches 40 percent of their historic environmental carrying capacity (estimated in the plan as 1,300 whales) and delisted when numbers reach 60 percent carrying capacity,” reads the release.
“These demographic criteria are problematic because the number of animals in a population is not necessarily an indication of the risk of extinction. Further, the plan includes threats-based recovery criteria that are not measurable and impossible to meet.”
Cook Inlet beluga whales — one of five distinct beluga stocks in Alaska waters — have been on the downswing for decades.
Alaska Natives used to harvest an average 77 a year until a big drop in stocks from 1994 to 1998 spurred NOAA to strictly rein in subsistence harvest. When stocks didn’t rebound as expected, NOAA listed them as endangered in 2008 and designated a critical habitat for them in 2011.
Currently, NOAA Fisheriers estimates there are 340 Cook Inlet belugas, down from the 1,300 estimated in 1979.
The recovery plan has a range of goals, including better surveying and science. Ensuring more access to what they eat could be critical.
Pointedly, Cook Inlet belugas like salmon even more than Alaskans. According to data gathered by NOAA between 2002 and 2010, salmon had a 67 percent occurrence rate in the stomachs of 28 dead belugas, a greater percentage than any other species and more than pollock and cod, beluga’s next favorite fish with a 39 percent occurrence rate.
According to a plan, fisheries managers might have to start factoring more escapement into management plans to account for the salmon beluga eat.
The plan calls for managers to “ensure fisheries management (e.g., escapement goals for CI beluga prey species) adequately accommodates CI beluga prey requirements, and if necessary, expand the number of species with escapement goals.”
Currently, salmon escapement goals in Cook Inlet don’t explicitly account for whale predation. They are included in the “natural mortality” metric used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to calculate salmon populations.
“ADFG should ensure the management of anadromous species considers CI beluga dietary needs, particularly in a way that provides for a sustained abundance, density, and temporal availability of returning fish as prey in CI beluga feeding areas,” reads the report. “This may require review of the models being used to manage fisheries in Cook Inlet to gain insight about the potential effects of these fisheries on the Inlet’s ecosystem.”
The endangered beluga rejuvenation plan also contains several mentions of the negative impacts of oil and gas development on habitat. Belugas live mostly in near shore waters, near human activity.
“Concern is warranted about the continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet and the cumulative effects on important beluga whale habitat,” reads the plan. “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.”
Oil and gas drilling are also listed as a threat as a source of noise, which may interrupt the movements of prey.
DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.