The beluga population of Cook Inlet, Alaska – recently re-listed as endangered – has fallen to its lowest level in nearly 20 years. So say the estimates arrived at in the 2011 survey of these remarkable ‘white whales’, planned and organised by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The survey in June last year found just 284 belugas compared to a count of 340 in 2010. The first NOAA survey in 1993 counted 653.
Federal biologists are advising caution over the latest figures as the number of beluga deaths reported during 2011 was much lower than normal. It may be that differing survey conditions and the whales spending more time underwater feeding during June skewed the figures.
The belugas’ decline has been blamed on various factors. Subsistence hunting by native populations led to a ban on hunting belugas in 1999. However the whales’ population has not recovered as expected since then, casting suspicion on pollution in Anchorage’s waste water.
More on belugas here.