Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Population Listed as Endangered;

For Immediate Release

Conservation Groups
Contact: 

Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232, ext. 304
John Schoen, Audubon-Alaska, (907) 276-7034
Craig Matkin, North Gulf Oceanic Society, (907) 299-0677
Karla Dutton, Defenders of Wildlife, (907) 863-4461
Mike Frank, Trustees for Alaska, (907) 276-4244, ext. 116

Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Population Listed as Endangered;

Conservation Groups Applaud National Marine Fisheries Service Decision

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Today the National Marine Fisheries Service announced its
long-awaited decision to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale population as
"endangered" under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas)
is a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population whose
numbers have plummeted by more than 50 percent in the past decade. The
Cook Inlet beluga population's status is so perilous that in 2006 the
scientific experts at the World Conservation Union (IUCN) placed the
Cook Inlet beluga on its Red List for critically threatened species.
The expert agency charged by Congress with protecting marine mammals -
the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission - repeatedly requested that the
Fisheries Service list the species under the Endangered Species Act.

"The science was clear - and it has been for a very long time," said
marine mammal scientist Craig Matkin of the North Gulf Oceanic Society.
"The population is critically endangered. The protections of the
Endangered Species Act provide the safety net so that the population
can escape extinction and recover."

Conservation
groups initially filed a petition to list the population as endangered
under the Endangered Species Act in March 1999. Opposition from the
state of Alaska, local cities and boroughs, and industry groups led the
Fisheries Service to reject the petition. Instead of protecting the
population under the Endangered Species Act, it listed the population
as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. At that time, the
Fisheries Service said that the imposition of severe restrictions on
Alaska Native hunting imposed under that Act would lead to the
population's recovery. But while almost no Native hunting has occurred
since then, recovery of the population has not occurred. Recent surveys
show that the Cook Inlet beluga whale's population now hovers around
375 animals, down from the Fisheries Service's estimated population of
approximately 1,300 whales in the early1990s.

Because the population had not recovered as the Fisheries Service
predicted, in April 2006 conservation groups filed a new Endangered
Species Act listing petition. Once again, the petition was opposed by
local cities and boroughs, industry groups, and the state of Alaska.
The Fisheries Service had until April 2008 to decide whether or not to
list the population. However, the agency extended that deadline for six
months (until October 20, 2008) at the request of the state of Alaska.
The Palin administration claimed that 2007 survey data demonstrated an
upward increase in the whale's population trend and therefore claimed
that listing was unwarranted. The Fisheries Service's recent survey
results have demonstrated, however, that there is no upward population
trend.

"Hopefully the listing decision is not
too late for the Cook Inlet beluga whale population's recovery," said
John Schoen, senior scientist of Audubon-Alaska. "It is unfortunate
that the population was not listed in 2000, when the scientific
evidence was overwhelming that it should be listed under the Endangered
Species Act."

Cook Inlet is the most populated and
fastest-growing watershed in Alaska, and thanks to oil and gas dumping,
sewage discharges, contaminated runoff, and regular shipping and
pipeline spills, rising pollution levels threaten the beluga whale and
its habitat. Furthermore, several massive infrastructure projects -
including the proposed Knik Arm Bridge, the Port of Anchorage
Expansion, the Chuitna coal strip mine, and the Port MacKenzie
expansion - will directly impact some of the whale's most important
habitat. Listing the Cook Inlet beluga whale will ensure that
developers and scientists work together to avoid further population
declines.

"This ends the debate about whether the
beluga should be protected under the Endangered Species Act and starts
the critically important process of actually working to recover the
species and protect its habitat," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program
director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Hopefully the state
of Alaska will now work towards protecting the beluga rather than, as
with the polar bear, denying the science and suing to overturn the
listing."

"Contrary to the rhetoric from opponents
to listing in industry and government, evidence from across the nation
shows an Endangered Species Act designation will not curtail
responsible development. Instead, a listing decision will simply ensure
that federal agency actions do not jeopardize the whales or their
habitat," said Karla Dutton, with Defenders of Wildlife.

Cook Inlet is a unique setting that supports the southernmost of
Alaska's five beluga populations. Cook Inlet offers a true estuary
environment that is very different from the beluga habitats to the
north. According to the Fisheries Service, no similar habitats exist in
Alaska or anywhere else in the United States.

Those who petitioned to list the whale population under the Endangered
Species Act are: Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Center for the Environment,
National Audubon Society - Alaska State Office, North Gulf Oceanic
Society, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Natural Resource Defense
Council (NRDC), Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife,
Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, Friends of the Anchorage Coastal
Wildlife Refuge, and Sylvia Brunner, PhD. Petitioners are represented
by the nonprofit law firm Trustees for Alaska.

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