#MapMonday: Cook Inlet Belugas

In this episode we travel to Cook Inlet in Alaska, home to the endangered Cook Inlet Beluga. Mae chats to two members of our Alaska team - Katy Bear Nalven and Jen Christopherson - about the threats facing this little white whale, what Defenders is doing to defend this unique population, and what you can do to help.

Check out the story map: http://dfnd.us/belugastorymap

Take action: http://dfnd.us/belugasaction

Click to view video transcript Mae: Hey there everybody and welcome back to another Map Monday!

Today we invite you to transport yourselves to the Cook Inlet in Alaska.The Cook Inlet is the body of water leading from the Gulf of Alaska in the south up to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and port.

The Cook Inlet serves a critical role for humans and wildlife alike. On any given day you can walk along its shores and hear the chatter of seabirds, the occasional bark of a seal, and if you’re really lucky maybe even hear the puff of air of a Cook Inlet beluga coming up for a breath by the water’s surface.

(Cook Inlet beluga blows air)

What you will also hear is the whir of planes from above, the drone of motorboats down below, the deep horns of cargo ships rumbling by, and the loud blasts of construction and oil and gas drilling. As you can imagine, this kind of activity can be quite disturbing for the wildlife that depend on the Cook Inlet and call it home.

This is especially the case for the Cook Inlet beluga, a beluga whale population found nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, because of these and other factors, the Cook Inlet belugas aren’t doing very well, with a population estimate at just 279 whales and declining.

Their sighting is now a rarity in the region, and many people who live around the Cook Inlet have never even seen them.

There are 5 populations of belugas in Alaska, of which the Cook Inlet belugas are the southernmost. But the Cook Inlet beluga population is unique from all the rest. Cook Inlet belugas are genetically and geographically isolated from all other beluga populations. Meaning - if we lose them - they can never be replaced by other belugas elsewhere.

The U.S. federal government listed the Cook Inlet beluga as endangered in 2006, granting them protections under the Endangered Species Act. The population did briefly grow until 2010 - but it has been dropping ever since.

Cook Inlet belugas really need our help and Defenders is committed to finding new and innovative approaches to conservation and incorporating all types of knowledge in the hopes of bringing these remarkable, ecologically and culturally significant animals back from the brink of extinction.

Let’s take it over to Jen, our Alaska Outreach Coordinator, to learn more about Defenders’ work with partners in the Cook Inlet region to bring this species back from the brink.

Jen: Thanks Mae! I’m here at the Upper Cook Inlet enjoying the beautiful fall weather in Alaska!

I have the fun job of doing outreach, education and advocacy for these whales. I was first introduced to Cook Inlet belugas in 2018 through Belugas Count, which is an annual event we help host with many other partners, who all support beluga whale recovery.

We also support the Native Village of Tyonek in citizen science monitoring efforts and education. As the whales swim past the village, community members track and record the numbers of belugas that they see. Belugas are a part of life and history in Alaska.

Education also plays a major role with belugas. I designed a Cook Inlet beluga education program in partnership with other non-profits. This program teaches school children about belugas, how to monitor for belugas, and how to take an active role in conservation.

This has been a fun collaboration where learning is key to understanding and appreciating our belugas.

Students learn why belugas have melon shaped heads, lack a dorsal fin, change color throughout their life, and students may be able view wild belugas during the program.

Defenders also co-hosts a beluga monitoring site, Ship Creek, in downtown Anchorage, in collaboration with the Alaska Beluga Whale Monitoring Partnership.

Now I’m going to pass the time over to Katy Bear Nalven, our Alaska Marine Representative.

Katy Bear: Thanks Jen!

Before joining Defenders, I spent a lot of time out on the water with humpback whales and other marine wildlife, but I had not had the opportunity to travel to Southcentral Alaska to meet our belugas. When I did finally see the belugas at Ship Creek for the first time, it was incredible to get up close to these animals, hear them click and whistle, all right in the heart of Alaska’s largest city.

Unfortunately, Cook Inlet belugas are facing a variety of pressures that are preventing their recovery.

While all types of unregulated hunting lead to their initial decline, it has been nearly 20 years since the last hunt and today the belugas are facing a lot more threats. For example, Cook Inlet is the only waterway in the U.S. where industry can get a special permit to dump toxic waste in the ocean.

Defenders works with federal and state agencies to seek the best mitigation practices to protect belugas. These include Cook Inlet oil and gas exploration and development proposals, infrastructure or other development projects, military training exercises, state toxic dumping permits, and others. We meet with agencies, track projects and provide science-based written comments to decision-makers in order to ensure that harm to Cook Inlet belugas is minimized or eliminated.

Throwing it back to you, Mae!

Mae: Thanks for sharing your awesome work with us, Jen and Katy Bear!

You can learn more about this beloved little white whale by checking out our storymap at the link below.

You can also join Jen and Katy Bear in protecting the Cook Inlet beluga from threats such as pollution and habitat degradation by writing a letter to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation at the link below asking them to halt the distribution of special permits to dump toxic waste in the waterways that the Cook Inlet beluga calls home.

Thanks for joining us on this journey to Cook Inlet. We look forward to seeing you next time and until then, happy mapping!

Mae Lacey
Previous Conservation GIS Analyst

As the previous Conservation GIS Analyst in the Center for Conservation Innovation, Mae provided support and leadership for geospatial product development across Defenders.