Good and Bad News for Belugas

While the US took a leap toward beluga conservation in October by adding Cook Inlet belugas to the Endangered Species List, the animals remain grossly overhunted in Greenland. The country’s Environmental Infrastructure Ministry declared the West Greenland subpopulation of beluga whales “critically endangered” on its list of at-risk plants and animals in July of last year. 

Unfortunately, the listing was not enough to safeguard the belugas from overhunting. Although it is estimated that this population has already declined by 62 percent—most likely a result of overharvesting—Greenland’s government still set the kill quota at 250 whales, nearly double the expert recommended cap of 130. 

Even this generous quota was not adhered to: Hunters in Upernavik requested an additional 50 whales; despite their request being granted, they illegally killed another 29, bringing Greenland’s total number of belugas killed that season to 329. 

Beluga whales, which are found only in arctic and sub-arctic waters, mostly inhabit the coastal shallows of Greenland, Russia, Canada and Alaska. As a predominantly coastal species, they are particularly vulnerable to pollution from human activities. In Alaska, the Cook Inlet beluga population has fluctuated from a high of 653 in 1994 to a low of 278 in 2005, and the species faces a variety of threats, including oil spills, disease, predation and habitat degradation as a result of oil and gas exploration. 

On October 22, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) listed the Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), citing that the subpopulation was in danger of extinction and that current protections were insufficient. The listing means that federal agencies must first consult with NOAA before starting a project to determine whether the activities will negatively affect belugas. 

The agency first proposed the listing in April 2007, with AWI as one of many groups and individuals that commented in support of the proposal. Those opposing the listing included Vice Presidential nominee and Alaskan Governor, Sarah Palin, who argued it might hamper oil drilling projects.