Beluga Whale Management and Recovery
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National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Regional Office

Cook Inlet Beluga Whales

Management and Recovery of Cook Inlet Beluga Whales

Cook Inlet beluga whale with calf
Cook Inlet beluga whale with calf.
Photo: Chris Garner, U.S. Army, Ft. Richardson.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale stock may once have numbered as many as 1,300 individuals but declined dramatically during the 1990s. Population abundance surveys indicated a decline of 47 percent between 1994 and 1998. Annual population abundance surveys from 1999 to 2014 estimated abundances ranging between 278 and 435 belugas, with a 2014 estimated abundance of 340 individual beluga whales. Since 1999, the population has declined by 1.3 percent annually with a 10-year decline (2004-2014) of 0.4 percent annually. Effective 2013, and based upon an analysis of the ability to detect changes in population trends using alternative aerial survey schedules, NMFS decided to switch from conducting abundance aerial surveys every year to conducting them every other year. The first year with no aerial survey was in 2013. The next aerial survey is planned for 2016.

In response to the significant population decline, NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated the Cook Inlet stock of beluga whales as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act on May 31, 2000. Subsistence harvests have been severely restricted, with only five whales harvested between 1999 and 2005. Due to the lack of recovery and the low population abundance, no subsistence harvest has been allowed since 2006. On October 22, 2008, NMFS listed this Distinct Population Segment of beluga whale found in Cook Inlet as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (ESA). On April 11, 2011, NMFS designated critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whale under the ESA. Two areas, comprising 3,016 square miles (7,809 square kilometers) of marine and estuarine environments considered to be essential for the whales' survival and recovery, were designated as critical habitat. NMFS excluded both the Port of Anchorage and the Eagle River Flats Range on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson from critical habitat for reasons of national security, and the benefit to beluga whales under the existing Department of Defense Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan, respectively. In 2010, NMFS began developing a Recovery Plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whales, as required by the ESA. Prior to final approval of a Recovery Plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whales, NMFS will publish a draft version for public review and comment. NMFS published a notice in the Federal Register on May 15, 2015, announcing the availability of the draft Recovery Plan for public review and soliciting comments. NMFS will take public comments into consideration when making revisions to the draft recovery plan before releasing a final version of the recovery plan. NMFS remains concerned about the recovery of this stock and the habitat necessary to lead to their recovery.


Cook Inlet beluga whale critical habitat April 2011
Map of Cook Inlet beluga whale critical habitat. Click on map to view larger version.


Recovery Plan

ESA Listing

Proposed Listing

Public Hearings


The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requires the Secretary of Commerce to prepare a conservation plan to promote conservation and recovery for any species or stock designated as depleted. The Conservation Plan for Cook Inlet Belugas reviews and assesses the known and potential factors influencing the Cook Inlet beluga whale stock. The Plan develops and presents a conservation strategy to guide federal and other actions toward the goal of recovering the stock to a population of no fewer than 780 whales. The recovery time frame will depend on the growth rate within this population. NMFS' models indicate recovery will require at least 30 years under the most optimal conditions.


The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was enacted for the purpose of ensuring the long-term survival of marine mammals by establishing federal responsibility for their conservation and management. The MMPA, section 101(b) contains an exemption from the MMPA's take prohibition that allows Alaska Natives to harvest marine mammals for subsistence use and for purposes of traditional Native handicrafts. Section 101(b) and section 103(d) of the MMPA require that regulations prescribed to limit the harvest of Alaska Natives be made only when the stock in question is designated as depleted pursuant to the MMPA, and following an agency administrative hearing on the record.

Following the depleted determination, (FR 65 3459, May 31, 2000), NMFS proposed regulations limiting the harvest of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska, (65 FR 59164, October 4, 2000). On April 6, 2004, NMFS published interim harvest regulations (69 FR 17973) to govern the taking of Cook Inlet beluga whales by Alaska Natives for subsistence purposes from 2001-2004. NMFS published final harvest regulations (73 FR 60976, October 15, 2008), to implement a long-term plan to manage subsistence harvests of Cook Inlet belugas, from 2008 until recovery. The purpose of these regulations is to promote recovery of this depleted beluga whale stock, while allowing for a limited subsistence harvest by Alaska Natives when consistent with achieving the recovery goals of the MMPA.

Management Plan

National Environmental Policy Act Analyses

Hearing with Administrative Law Judge and Parties: August 2, 2004

NMFS initiated a formal administrative hearing, on-the-record, regarding the proposed regulations on May 31, 2000 (65 FR 34590 PDF). NMFS convened the hearing regarding the proposed regulations before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Parlen L. McKenna, on December 5-8, 2000, in Anchorage, Alaska. On March 29, 2002, ALJ McKenna forwarded to NMFS a recommended decision (Docket Number 000922272-0272-01) based on the discussions at the formal hearing, the administrative record, and written records forwarded to the ALJ.

Based on the recommended decision of the ALJ proceedings and information received during the public comment period on the decision, NMFS published final regulations to limit the harvest of CI beluga whales. These regulations were in effect from 2001-2004. At the ALJ hearing, the parties agreed that NMFS would submit a final recommendation on the long-term harvest regime for 2005 and subsequent years to the judge and all parties no later than March 15, 2004. The long term harvest plan is still in progress.

Testimony: July 15, 2004

Response to Testimony, July 22, 2004

Long Term Harvest Regime Working Group Meeting Minutes

Statutes on the Taking of Beluga Whales


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