ANCHORAGE — The federal estimate of the number of beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet increased slightly in 2014, but researchers conclude the population remains in danger of extinction.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists announced Monday the 2014 estimate is 340 animals, up from 312 animals in 2012.
The change was not scientifically significant, according to NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
“To determine whether a population is recovering or declining the, small changes from survey to survey don’t tell us as much as the trend over a period of 10 to 20 years,” population biologist Rod Hobbs said in the announcement. “Estimates can vary from year to year based on weather, oceanographic conditions, changes in beluga behavior or distribution, and statistical variability in the data.”
Cook Inlet stretches 180 miles from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska. Beluga whales, which turn white as adults, feed on salmon and smaller fish, crab, shrimp, squid and clams.
The Cook Inlet beluga population dwindled steadily through the 1980s and early ‘90s. The decline accelerated between 1994 and 1998 when Alaska Natives harvested nearly half the remaining 650 whales in only four years.
The National Marine Fisheries Service initially determined that controlling subsistence hunting would allow the population to recover. When it did not, they agency declared belugas endangered in 2008.
Population estimates have ranged from 278 to 375 animals in the last decade. The overall trend shows the beluga population isn’t recovering and is in decline at an annual average rate of 0.4 percent.
Abundance estimates are conducted by aerial survey. Scientists count whales and make video recordings of whale groups that are analyzed in early June to estimate distribution and abundance, NOAA said.
Cook Inlet belugas are one of five beluga populations in U.S. waters.
Beluga whale research and reports: http://1.usa.gov/1CEp6J1