The beluga whales of Cook Inlet are a very unique, and special population. These individuals live in Cook Inlet, and nowhere else in the world. This population, perhaps cut off from others since the last Ice Age, do not migrate and have not interbred with other belugas for thousands of years. This seperation demonstrates that not only are these belugas different from all others, an individual subspecies perhaps, but that they will never be replaced if they are exterminated.
Unfortunatly, these white whales are in steep decline. In 1994, the population of Cook Inlet belugas was listed at roughly 653. In four short years, 1998, the population was nearly halved- at only 347 individuals. The whales hung in there, but by 2012, there are less than 300 left.
The threats to these whales have not faded in time, only grown more severe, but now, the greatest threat yet has arisen. Recently, the National Marine Fisheries granted Apache Alaska Corp. a permit to "take, via harassment, 30 belugas in the first year of what will ultimately be three to five years of seismic surveys," according to the federal complaint.
That means, in the first year, roughly 10% of the endangered beluga population will be exterminated.
Apache Alaska will be mining for subsurface oil and gas reserves through the use of air guns, "that produce some of the loudest underwater sounds short of dynamite."
"Day and night, for 160 days per year, Cook Inlet will be inundated with high-intensity sound pulses that are greater than 235 decibels at their source - billions of times more intense than the noise thresholds known to compromise foraging and other vital behavior in marine mammals," according to the complaint filed by the Native Village of Chickaloon, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Water Advocacy. "This sound can travel vast distances underwater, and, according to a substantial scientific record, it harms many different marine species, including beluga whales and numerous species of fish."
Cook Inlet, a 180-mile-long watershed on the south-central coast of Alaska, is a designated critical habitat for the critically endangered beluga whale, a species whose population has dwindled from 1,300 to just 284 in recent years, the environmentalists say. The species allegedly has a 26 percent probability of extinction in 100 years and 70 percent in 300 years.
Once towed out to sea, air guns "release intense bursts of compressed air into the water about every 10-12 seconds," according to the complaint. "The pulses of sound they produce travel down through the water column, penetrate deep into the seafloor, and rebound to the surface where they can be recorded and analyzed."
Unlike the sound, however, the toll air guns take on aquatic life is not invisible, opponents say.
"The ocean is an acoustic environment," according to the complaint. "Marine mammals and many species of fish rely on sound to forage, breed, navigate, communicate, and avoid predators - in short, to survive. These species are therefore particularly vulnerable to, and harmed by, intense underwater noise from seismic surveys. According to the United States Marine Mammal Commission, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, and other preeminent scientific experts, impacts from intense manmade underwater noise range from disruption of biologically critical behaviors - such as feeding, breeding, communicating and nursing - to temporary and permanent hearing loss. In some cases, the noise can cause injury and death."
Surveys in the Cook Inlet would also harm Steller sea lions, killer whales, harbor porpoises, harbor seals and fish, the groups say.
Some biologists call the increasing level of ocean noise from human activities "acoustic smog," according to the complaint.
Opponents say air gun surveys have caused some whales to stop vocalizing or to abandon habitat, and have caused mass strandings of toothed whales in the Gulf of California and Madagascar.
Apache's harassment authorization gives it leeway to take up to 30 belugas, 10 killer whales, 20 Steller sea lions and other species between April 30, 2012, April 30, 2013, according to the complaint.