Anchorage - The depleted population of beluga whales that swim off the coast of Alaska's largest city was listed as endangered on Friday by the federal government.
Yulka, a beluga whale
© REUTERS/Heino KalisYulka, a beluga whale, swims at the Oceanografic in Valencia August 11, 2006.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it has determined that belugas in Cook Inlet, the channel that flows from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska, are at risk of extinction and deserving of strict protections under the Endangered Species Act.

The population, which fell to a low of 278 in 2005 from 653 in 1994, has yet to rebound from a period of over-harvesting by the region's Native hunters, officials said.

Hunting of Cook Inlet belugas largely ceased in 1999, but the population continues to struggle, officials said.

"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," James Balsinger, acting assistant administrator for NOAA's Fisheries Service, said in a statement.

Environmentalists hailed the listing decision, but criticized the time it took to materialize.

"This ends the debate about whether the beluga should be protected under the Endangered Species Act, and starts the critically important process of actually working to recover the species and protect its habitat," Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.

"Hopefully the State of Alaska will now work toward protecting the beluga rather than, as with the polar bear, denying the science and suing to overturn the listing."

The endangered listing comes despite objections from Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican candidate for vice president. At the urging of the Palin administration, NOAA delayed a listing decision that had been expected in April so that it could conduct one additional summer population survey.

Various industry groups have also fought the listing, which they fear will hamper Cook Inlet oil and gas development, cargo shipping, commercial fishing and major construction projects.

The beluga population of Cook Inlet is among five beluga populations in Alaska waters.