Court says beluga whale is endangered, despite steady population estimates

November 30, 2011 | By BRIAN HODGES

A federal court in Washington, D.C. recently upheld the National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to list beluga whales in Cook Inlet as an endangered species, even though recent surveys show that the beluga population is not significantly declining.  The court’s decision is based on the proposition that the beluga population is endangered because it has not grown as the government predicted.  This outcome raises an important question: May the government list a species that is not in decline as endangered merely because the government’s own growth predictions were wrong?

The case of the Cook Inlet belugas is a curious one.  Only 11 years ago, the same D.C. court held that listing the beluga as endangered was not warranted, since restrictions on subsistence hunting implemented in the late 1990s made it unlikely that previous population declines would continue.  Nothing has changed since that decision.  Subsistence hunting of belugas is still being regulated, and beluga numbers are holding steady.

Yet in 2008, NMFS listed the Cook Inlet beluga as endangered when surveys failed to show an expected 2 to 6 percent population growth.  The State of Alaska challenged that decision because regulating the Cook Inlet beluga as an endangered species could have major deleterious impacts on shipping, fishing, resource development, public infrastructure projects, and national defense in Alaska’s most populated region.

It is unknown whether Alaska will appeal the ruling, but if it does, the next stop is the D.C. Circuit.