Hawaii & Alaska
(Bill Roth / ADN)

AK - Cook Inlet belugas are declining fast, but why?

Last week, a stranded beluga whale was found dead in the mudflats near Potter Marsh, according to the Anchorage Daily News. This news underlines the lingering mystery – why are belugas continuing to decline?

Last week, a stranded beluga whale was found dead in the mudflats near Potter Marsh, according to the Anchorage Daily News. This news underlines the lingering mystery – why are belugas continuing to decline?

Even NOAA Fisheries officials in 2017 acknowledged that they did not know why the Cook Inlet population has not recovered.

What we do know is that there are likely many factors contributing to the decline of these endangered whales, such as climate change, prey availability, coastal development and pollution, which are understudied.

Unfortunately, Cook Inlet has become a dumping ground for toxins and raw sewage. For example, the state of Alaska is issuing Clean Water Act permits that allow the dumping of billions of gallons of toxic substances into the inlet, where critical habitat has been designated for belugas. It’s the only coastal water body in the country where a loophole allows oil and gas companies to dump toxic waste. Research shows that bioaccumulation of toxics in top predators, like belugas and other marine mammals, is bad news. We can look toward other beluga populations to demonstrate this. A 2019 study determined that both St. Lawrence Estuary belugas, which are known to have high cancer rates, and Cook Inlet belugas have higher levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – known to cause cancer – than belugas in other wild populations or in aquariums.

Cook Inlet is continually impacted by gas leaks. Last month, Hilcorp was ordered to replace an undersea pipeline after it leaked gas for the fifth time in the last several years. And, what’s more, according to Alaska Public Media, the last time the pipe leaked in 2017, Hilcorp didn’t complete repairs for three months, citing danger from ice in the inlet.

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