This week the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) designated (PDF) 3,013 square miles (nearly 2 million acres) of marine habitat in Alaska as critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whale. NMFS listed the species as endangered (PDF) in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Critical habitat was subsequently proposed (PDF) in 2009. The final rule includes several small changes to the areas proposed as critical habitat—most importantly, it excludes the Port of Anchorage for reasons relating to national security as well as portions of military lands.
The beluga whale is a northern hemisphere species that inhabits fjords, estuaries, and shallow waters of the Arctic and subarctic oceans. The Cook Inlet population is numerically the smallest of five distinct stocks recognized in Alaska. The Cook Inlet borders the City of Anchorage and is the most populated and fastest-growing watershed in Alaska. The final rule announcing the species’ critical habitat will become effective on May 11, 2011.