NOAA: Public benefits of recovering beluga whales outweigh costs

When it comes down to helping endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales to recover, NOAA says the public’s concern for the survival of these marine mammals shows that the cost results in net benefits to society.

The conclusion of NOAA Fisheries on the estimated economic value of Cook Inlet belugas was based on survey responses from 1,747 Alaska households, which were compared to estimated recovery costs.

“When we extend the sample results to the population of all households, the benefits outweigh the costs,” said Dan Lew, an economist with NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

“Alaskan households care about protecting and recovering this beluga population that is found only in their state,” Lew said. “If we were to extend the results to include the entire nation, the net benefits would be even greater.” 

Cook Inlet beluga whales are found exclusively in the waters of Cook Inlet, which borders on Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, largest port, and center of commerce.

Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered in 2008, due to ongoing declines in population. Despite protection under the Endangered Species Act, that population failed to recover. Today there are an estimated 331 belugas in Cook Inlet, down from about 1,300 in 1979.

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NOAA identified potential causes of the decline to harmful noise from human activity, changes in prey abundance, potential catastrophic events like oil spills and mass strandings, pathogens and disease, and habitat loss and degradation.

To help the belugas, NOAA Fisheries in 2016 adopted a comprehensive recover plan, which include a 50-year strategy of research, monitoring, management and public education and outreach. The estimated total cost, in 2013 dollars, is $73 million. 

In advance of this plan, NOAA conducted a random sampling of 4,200 Alaska households and received 1,747 completed surveys, an effective response rate of 44.4%. The survey showed the respondents “willingness to pay,” which is the maximum price a customer is willing to pay for a product or service, in this case beluga conservation. The study then compared willingness-to-pay estimates for the population of households with recovery costs to see if the plan passed the cost-benefit test.

They found that Alaskans are willing to pay $99 million for full recovery of Cook Inlet belugas, easily exceeding the $73 million cost.

“The Cook Inlet beluga is an isolated population, located only in Cook Inlet,” Lew said. “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.”

“I think that’s important to understand,” he said. “It indicates a public desire to protect other species that are not widespread in their range.” 

NOAA officials said that a previous study showed that even under restrictive assumptions, benefits are greater than costs for the nation’s 34 of 36 threatened and endangered species.

“Our results add another data point showing that protecting endangered species leads to positive net benefits to society,” he said.

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