Study says recovery of Cook Inlet belugas is seen as economically valuable | Polarjournal
A Cook Inlet beluga mother and calf are seen swimming in 2017. A “willingness to pay” analysis found that Alaskans place a high value on keeping this unique population healthy (Photo: Hollis Europe and Jacob Barbaro / Noaa Fisheries)

Alaska’s distinct — and endangered — beluga whale population faces numerous threats to its recovery. A lack of public support is not one of them

The beluga whales of Cook Inlet, which swim in the waters off of Anchorage are beloved by local sightseers and visitors to Alaska’s biggest city. But is preserving the endangered urban whale population worthwhile economically? A newly published economic study says it is.

The study, by a fisheries economist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an American federal science agency, used a survey of randomly selected Alaska households that asked about “willingness to pay” for recovery of Cook Inlet belugas. Willingness to pay is an economic concept that measures value; it describes the maximum price a consumer would pay for a good or service or what a taxpayer would consider fair to pay for a public service.

For Cook Inlet belugas, the survey of 1,747 Alaska households revealed an aggregate willingness to pay totalling $99 million (€90 million) in 2013 dollars, according to the state-of-the-art model used in the study. That compares with the $73 million cumulative cost, in 2013 dollars, that was tallied in the Cook Inlet beluga 50-year recovery plan released in 2016.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of eight featured species of marine wildlife most at-risk of extinction. A distinct population that has seen rapid decline in the 1990s, it was classified by US authorities in 2008 as endangered (Photo: Noaa Fisheries)

The study did not survey households outside of Alaska. Had it done so, it would have yielded a higher aggregate value, said Dan Lew, an employee at Noaa’s Alaska Fisheries Science Centre and the author of the paper.

Mr Lew, in a statement released by Noaa Fisheries, said the results show that Alaskans value this unique population.

“The Cook Inlet beluga is an isolated population, located only in Cook Inlet. It’s in a state where people are close to the natural environment and surrounded by wildlife. And there are other beluga populations elsewhere. Despite all that, the public still expressed a desire to protect and recover it,” Mr Lew said. “I think that’s important to understand. It indicates a public desire to protect other species that are not widespread in their range.” 

Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered in 2008. The population is believed to have totalled about 1,300 in late 1979, but there was a precipitous drop in the 1990s that was blamed on overhunting during that decade. The marine mammals face numerous and combined threats, scientists say, including industrial noise from Anchorage and elsewhere in the inlet, habitat loss, pollution and contaminants, diseases, potential mass strandings and loss of prey. Climate change plays a role, exacerbating some of the individual threats, scientists say.

For several years, the belugas’ prospects seemed dim. By 2018, the population was estimated to be below 300, according to Noaa Fisheries. But the latest population survey shows some signs of possible recovery, with a median estimate of 331.

Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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