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Beluga whales not recovering as expected

28th May 2004

Associated Press ((Yahoo News))

The number of beluga whales in the Cook Inlet has not recovered as expected, and scientists and environmentalists are not sure why.

About 30 Alaska Natives, scientists, environmentalists and others met with National Marine Fisheries Service managers this week to help launch a conservation plan for the whales.

Once thought to number 1,300, beluga whales in the waterway plummeted during the 1990s. Federal biologists blamed the decline on over-hunting by Alaska Natives, the only people allowed to kill them.

"The hunters have been in the public eye, they've taken your whipping, and yet you have 24, 25 whales dead last year," Delice Calcote, secretary of the Native hunting group Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council, told federal biologists during the meeting.

"I think we should have good studies of what's being dumped from all different places," she said. "What the heck is going on?"

The population was listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2000, and hunting was limited to one or two whales per year. Biologists hoped the whales would naturally rebound.

But since 1998, the population has hovered between an estimated 350 and 400 animals with no sign of a trend up or down.

Beluga experts say it might take years before scientists can know what's going on because the whales spend most of their time submerged in silty, white-capped water and are difficult to count.

"This stock is not going to be recovered in just a few years. ... It might be decades," federal biologist Brad Smith told the group.

The conservation plan, required by the marine mammal act, is several years overdue. It must be done, Smith said, and should look at factors other than hunting, which has already been studied.

The agency hopes to produce a draft for public review by midsummer and finish the document before the end of the year.

The whales get stranded on mud flats when the tide goes out, but almost always survive, Smith said. Killer whales occasionally attack them, but that seems not to be increasing. Harvest by Natives is now closely regulated and won't take place at all in 2004 because at least 20 whales washed up dead last summer, apparently due to natural causes.

"We don't believe right now that it is going to be Native harvest that is going to determine whether the stock will recover," Smith said. "It's going to be comprehensive actions" on other issues.

For instance, Smith said, "belugas are horribly sensitive to noise. ... There's an awful lot of noise going into these waters, and we don't have a real good understanding of how that's affecting belugas."

Another question, Smith said, is whether Cook Inlet fishermen are taking so many salmon that it's affecting the whales.

With beluga management biologist Barbara Mahoney writing down suggestions on poster sheets, people raised dozens of matters that might deserve investigation, ranging from pollution or runoff from cities to the suspicion that Cook Inlet has been gradually silting up and getting shallower.

Others suggested the declines could be due to an increase in ship traffic, oil platform and sewage discharges, global warming and other possibilities.

Henry Springer, executive director of the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, urged the agency to focus on things that could be changed.

"Oil platforms aren't going away, shipping isn't going away and development isn't going away," he said. "I don't think you can come up with any reasonable management plan if you don't take a realistic approach."