Beluga and scuba diver Beluga
Conservation & Research

The International Whaling Commission (IWC)

In 1946, 14 countries signed the International Whaling Convention for the regulation of whaling, forming the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The goal of the IWC is to manage whale stocks as a resource.

The IWC monitors whale populations through scientific advisory groups and coordinates and funds a variety of whale research.

In 1986, the IWC declared a moratorium on commercial whaling. The moratorium - which is still in effect - allows for the possibility of regulated commercial whaling in the future.

Currently, the IWC has no jurisdiction over small cetaceans. 

IUCN/The World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission (SSC)

IUCN/The World Conservation Union is a worldwide conservation organization. This organization links together government agencies, non-government agencies, and independent states to encourage a worldwide approach to conservation. The beluga whale is listed in the IUCN/The World Conservation Union's near threatened category (the species faces a high risk of extinction).

The Endangered Species Act, 1973 (ESA)

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) is administered by the U.S. Departments of Interior and Commerce. It seeks to stop the extinction of wild animals and plants in the United States, other nations, and at sea.

In Alaska, about 375 beluga whales live in the northern part of Cook Inlet. This population is one of five populations in Alaska (and the U.S.). The Cook Inlet population has declined about 50% since 1994 and once ranged throughout Cook Inlet. Initially, the decline was linked to overhunting of belugas by humans. Yet, even with essentially no take of Cook Inlet belugas since 1999, the population has not recovered.

The continued beluga decline may be due to:

  • less salmon and other prey fishes available
  • diminishing habitat quality due to human development
  • oil and gas exploration, development, and production
  • pollution from industrial activities
  • an increase in killer whale predation on belugas
  • increased mortality from stranding
  • increased mortality from disease

Due to their very low population size and lack of recovery the Cook Inlet beluga population was listed as "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act on October 22, 2008.

Legal Protection

The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 made it illegal to hunt or harass marine mammals in the U.S.

  • The primary objective of the MMPA is to maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem and to obtain and maintain an optimum sustainable population of marine mammals.
  • According to the MMPA, all whales in U.S. waters (baleen and toothed) are under the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
  • The MMPA does allow for certain exceptions: native subsistence hunting; taking marine mammals for research, education, and public display; and taking restricted numbers of marine mammals incidentally in the course of fishing operations.

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international treaty developed in 1973 to regulate trade in certain wildlife species. CITES protects all species of toothed whales. Beluga whales are listed in CITES Appendix II (species not currently considered threatened, but trade is regulated by CITES).

An isolated population of belugas in the St. Lawrence River has been legally protected since 1983. In 1988 the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Environment Canada (a government agency that oversees national parks) implemented the St. Lawrence Action Plan.

  • The goal of the plan was to eliminate 90% of all industrial emissions in the St. Lawrence River by 1993.
  • Within 10 years emissions had been reduced by 96%.
  • As part of the plan, the St. Lawrence Vision 2000 Agreement partnered with the World Wildlife Fund and government and nongovernment experts to develop a beluga recovery plan that continues to protect and monitor the St. Lawrence beluga population and further restore their habitat.

Whale Watching

Whale watching expeditions bring people close to wild whales and help people learn about them.

NOAA has developed "Marine wildlife viewing guidelines" to protect marine animals. Among other recommendations, the guidelines instruct whale watchers to keep their distance. Chasing or harassing animals, impeding their right of way, touch and feeding animals are not allowed.

Marine Zoological Parks

Having beluga whales at marine zoological parks provides the opportunity for the public to learn about these animals and how human activities impact their survival.

In the protected environment of a marine zoological park, scientists can examine aspects of beluga whale biology that are difficult or impossible to study in the wild.

Dr. Brent Stewart from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute is studying the behavior and bio-acoustics of the Cook Inlet belugas and the physical and acoustic interactions between beluga whales and boats in the upper Cook Inlet near Anchorage, which seems to be an important breeding and feeding habitat for this population.