Beluga Whales In Alaska's Cook Inlet Endangered - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Beluga Whales In Alaska's Cook Inlet Endangered

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The government has declared Beluga whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet endangered, and they'll need special protection if they're going to survive. The number of whales plummeted 50 percent in just four years, and they're not going back up. News 8's Natasha Stenbock spoke to a Beluga expert who recently returned from Alaska.

They're affectionately known as sea canaries. Their noises cannot be ignored, nor can their size. At Sea World, most weigh about 2,000 pounds, but even with the Beluga whales' gigantic size, they act just like teddy bears.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared Cook Inlet Beluga whales as endangered species. Doctor Brent Stewart at Hubbs Research Institute is studying the effects of human activity on the Beluga's habitat. He spoke to News 8 shortly after his return from the Cook Inlet in Alaska.

"There are concerns about that population it's declined by 60 percent since 1979," Dr. Stewart said.

The Belugas at Sea World are not from Cook Inlet, but they do allow scientists to study behavior and sexual maturity.

"There is some research going on here looking at the behavior of the animals - how they interact with each other, they're hormonal asays, whether they're cycling, whether they're in estrus, whether they're pregnant - and that's ongoing," Dr. Stewart said.

Pregnancy for a Beluga whale lasts 14 months, and they care for their young for up to two years.

"If the population is going to recover it's suspected it will take some time, and having them protected by listing and having some habitat that's important to them protected... the thinking of the NOAA scientists is that it will give them enough time to recover," Dr. Stewart said.

Belugas are thought to live up to 60 years, but it takes five years before females research sexual maturity, and eight to nine years before male Belugas mate. Scientists believe this is another reason to protect them, as females may only give birth every two to three years.

"Under the Endangered Species Act, when they're added to the list, when they're designated as an endangered species usually critical habitat is designated immediately, but the government has the opportunity under the law to delay that up to a year and that's what they're doing now," Dr. Stewart said.

Business leaders in South Central Alaska have expressed concern that any new restrictions to protect Belugas will negatively affect the economy and industrial projects.

"The population of Anchorage has been increasing, and the number of activities there have also been increasing. There are several projects that are planned some think will have an effect on the whales, whether they're stable, increasing or declining," Dr. Stewart said.

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service is scheduled to release a protection plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga whales in late December.

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