Two areas of Alaska's Cook Inlet will be designated as critical habitat for the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale, NOAA's Fisheries Service, Alaska Regional Office announced today.
The critical habitat designation encompasses 3,016 square miles of marine and estuarine environments considered by scientists to be essential for the whales' survival.
Today's rule finalizes critical habitat first proposed in December 2009, following a notice of intent to sue by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.
"The designation of critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whale gives this highly imperiled whale a real chance of recovery," said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director at the Center. "The Fisheries Service has thrown Cook Inlet belugas a much-needed lifeline."
The designated habitat covers feeding areas near the mouths of salmon streams, but not all of the current range of these white whales was found to be critical.
Scientists estimate there are just 321 Cook Inlet beluga whales left in the wild, down from 1,300 counted in the past. This distinct population segment was listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in October 2008.
The Center and other organizations are currently defending the Fisheries Service in a lawsuit brought by the state of Alaska that challenges the listing of Cook Inlet belugas under the Endangered Species Act.
Cook Inlet belugas form a genetically distinct and geographically isolated group of belugas whose numbers have plummeted in recent years. The Fisheries Service's decision to list Cook Inlet belugas as endangered was supported by every government and agency scientist who weighed in on the issue.
Required under the Endangered Species Act, the critical habitat designation affects those activities that involve a federal permit, license or funding, such as construction and operation of oil rigs, port construction, dredging, or discharges into Cook Inlet that must be authorized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Fisheries Service said the critical habitat designation is based on the results of more than 20 years of research, and an economic analysis on the critical habitat designation which found that benefits of the designation to beluga whales exceeded the costs.
"While today's designation is an important step toward saving the Cook Inlet beluga, protections for the species remain far from complete," said Noblin. "The Fisheries Service must quickly finalize a recovery plan and must stop approving permits that allow for the destruction of important beluga habitat in Cook Inlet."