Why We Must Protect Beluga Whales

Oil and gas lease sales inflict grave harm on endangered species like the Cook Inlet beluga whale.

Beluga whale
The population of Cook Inlet beluga whales has declined steadily since the 1970s. (NOAA/Marine Mammal Commission)

This page was published 2 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Earthjustice board relations assistant Chantal Shaffer is an Inuk, originally from the Nunatsiavut (Eastern Canadian Arctic) region. She currently resides as a guest on ancestral Muwekma Ohlone lands (San Jose, CA).

When I think of belugas I think of a cute playful toothed whale, born gray but turning white, with a distinctive structure on its forehead. The whale that always looks like it’s smiling, swimming through the Arctic oceans.

Alaska’s Cook Inlet is an important refuge for an endangered population of belugas. These whales recently faced a huge threat as the Biden administration prepared to auction off a million acres of the inlet for oil and gas development. After environmental groups and tribal governments called attention to the ways this lease sale would harm the Arctic’s inhabitants and hasten climate change, the administration abandoned the sale.

The damage that such sales inflict on endangered species is one of many reasons Earthjustice is fighting to prevent the government from leasing the lands and waters that it stewards for the public to fossil fuel companies.

The beluga is one of the only whales believed to remain within their respective areas year-round, making it an important animal for the ecosystem in Cook Inlet. The Arctic socialite carries much cultural importance to the Indigenous peoples of the area.

For the Dena’Ina Ełnena and Alutiit Inuit whose traditional lands are in what is now named Anchorage, the whale has had a rich human connection for centuries and has provided nutritional, economic, social, and cultural benefits to the Indigenous Arctic peoples. I think of eating mattaq (whale skin and blubber) and the tools the whale has provided such as umiak (shallow water harpoons), the oil lamp, and even the ulu to cut the thick skin. The small white-toothed whale is closely tied to the Dena’Ina Ełnena and the larger Inuit population’s knowledge, skill, identity, and kinship, and thus is a close animal relative to Arctic Indigenous people beyond the Cook Inlet region.

Quite often the blame for the population decline of the whales is put on the Indigenous peoples. However, with the arrival of settlers in the Alaska region and the 19th century “Golden Age of Whaling,” thousands of whaling ships arrived at shore. Commercial whale hunts killed thousands of beluga whales across Russia, Canada, Greenland, and the United States until commercial whaling was internationally banned in 1986. In addition, with a strong history of importance for hunting, the whale has become a symbol of political conversations around food scarcity for Arctic Indigenous peoples, and land and water ownership.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale’s population declined from approximately 1,300 animals in 1970 to roughly 279 to date. It was once argued that Indigenous people’s sustenance hunting caused this die-off, but even after a hunting moratorium was put in place, the population continued to decline.

Now tourism, fishing industries, and oil and gas developments in the area are believed to be tied to the population decline. These activities drive stressors such as habitat destruction, pollution, shipping traffic, increased underwater noise from oil and gas exploration and development, and military operations.

Seismic testing and other loud underwater noises prevent the whales from echolocating to find food and one another and caring for their young. Since the whales cluster in a near-shore environment, it is directly exposed to many human activities happening at shore, and an oil spill could be a catastrophic risk.

The 1972 Clean Water Act, which prohibits the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters, shockingly does not apply to Cook Inlet. It is the only coastal location where oil and gas companies can release contaminated produced water and drilling wastes with little to no treatment. According to a report by Divi, Jennifer E. Dwyer, Corbin D. Ester, et al (2019), carcinogenic compounds found in produced water from oil and gas production in Cook Inlet are likely tied to gastrointestinal cancer in beluga whales.

Additionally, the whale’s diets consist of octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, snails, and sandworms. They also eat a variety of fish, including salmon, eulachon, cod, herring, smelt, and flatfish. These fish populations have suffered from increased flooding in waterways due to increased rainfall and rising temperatures, which have heavily impacted, for instance, the king salmon of the Cook Inlet region.

This brings forward important conversations about protecting the biodiversity of the region and continuing to support Earthjustice’s mission to stop Arctic oil and gas drilling. Our recent victory icing ConocoPhilip’s drilling plan is a perfect example of what our litigation can do in the Arctic. The proposed Willow Project involves constructing five drill sites, as well as building 37 miles of new gravel roads, seven bridges, an airstrip, almost 500 miles of ice roads, and a gravel mine on public lands. This victory is a shining example of how we can protect the Arctic and its inhabitants from exploitative oil and gas drilling corporations so it can continue to thrive.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale carries much importance to people’s lives in Cook Inlet and the larger ecosystem of the Arctic. Protecting its habitat and preventing the extinction of the whale is crucial. Earthjustice’s work is one important step to help protect the environment of the smiling whale.

Based in San Francisco, Chantal is the board relations assistant.