Study says recovery of Cook Inlet belugas is seen as economically valuable

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - July 6, 2023
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 by Hollis Europe and Jacob Barbaro/NOAA Fisheries)

The beluga whales of Cook Inlet, which swim in the waters off of Alaska’s biggest city, are beloved by local sightseers and tourists. 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, 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 citizens 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 totaling $99 million in 2013 dollars, according to the state-of-the-art model used in the study. That compares to the $73 million cumulative cost, in 2013 dollars, that was tallied in the Cook Inlet beluga 50-year recovery plan released in 2016.

The study did not survey households outside of Alaska. Had it done so, it would have yielded a higher aggregate value, said author Dan Lew, who works for NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

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,” Lew said in the statement. “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 totaled about 1,300 in the late 1979, but there was a precipitous drop in the 1990s, a crash 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.

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