Declaring Cook Inlet beluga whales an endangered species — as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did Friday — was only the first step toward protecting them. Now federal biologists are trying to figure out exactly what's endangering them.
The newly released "Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale" — a 128-page report compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service — takes a preliminary stab at the question, listing 18 possible threats to the local whale population.
Five of those threats would pose a "high" risk of jeopardizing the belugas were they to occur, the study says. Among them are two natural dangers: disease and strandings of whales on mud flats.
Three are man-made dangers: whale poaching, food reduction (by damaging salmon habitat or over-fishing) and unnatural noise in the water (such as off-shore drilling, pile-driving in the construction of a Knik Arm bridge or expansion of the Port of Anchorage).
The report also lists as "unknown" the impact on belugas that might result from three man-made dangers: Oil and gas spills, systematic water pollution (including the partially treated sewage Anchorage discharges into Cook Inlet) and environmental change (such as ocean warming).
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