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Fewer belugas seen in June count


However, biologists say population may not be going down.

By Doug O'Harra
Anchorage Daily News

27th January 2003

The annual June count of Cook Inlet's beluga whales has produced an abundance estimate of only 313 animals, the lowest number ever reported, according to calculations released last week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Does this mean that belugas, whose numbers are officially listed as depleted, have suddenly lost more than 70 animals since the 2001 estimate of 386? Biologists say no.

The population could range from 248 to 396, about the same number of whales estimated during the past four years, said federal biologist Rod Hobbs, who supervises the survey for the National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle.

The new figure is not statistically different from previous years', Hobbs said. "It's inconclusive."

"I hope people don't take it that the population is going down, because it doesn't mean that at all," added Michael Payne, director of protected resources for the fisheries service in Alaska.

But a Native hunter and an environmental group director found the latest beluga whale number disconcerting. Maybe the agency ought to begin looking into factors like shipping, industry, pollution and noise, they said.

By tracking beluga numbers over many years, federal biologists hope to figure out whether the genetically isolated Cook Inlet whales have started recovering from a population plunge blamed on over hunting by Natives in the early 1990s.

Once thought to number 1,300, the local stock of whales had dropped to about 350 animals in 1998. Hunting was halted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and continued under a co-management agreement with a Native group, Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council. Two whales have been harvested in the past two years: one by a crew from Tyonek in 2001 and one by an Anchorage-based crew in 2002.

A surge in belugas could expand these traditional subsistence hunts while delighting people who value belugas as an element of local marine life. Yet another crash could ultimately trigger stricter government regulation, including a listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Previous abundance estimates have gone from 347 in 1998 to 435 in 2000. None suggest a conclusive change in the actual population because they have been based on estimates with very broad ranges. "Unfortunately, even with our best survey efforts, we can only expect to be within 20 percent of the true abundance," Hobbs said.

The counts from any single year might say more about the difficulty of counting fast-moving cetaceans that spend most of their lives submerged in silty water than about shifts in the actual number of Cook Inlet whales, Hobbs said.

"It's important to recognize the trend of the past couple of years has either been stable or slightly up," Payne said. "I don't think there is any reason for people to think that belugas are decreasing."

But the low figure alarmed an environmental activist seeking endangered species status for the whales before the state Supreme Court.

"We know that the whales crashed, but we need to be making sure that recovery happens rather than just hoping it happens," said Randy Virgin, executive director of the Alaska Center for the Environment. "We shouldn't be leaving something like this to chance."

Several Native hunters said they were also concerned.

"You could only blame (Native hunters) for so long and then you have to look at all the factors," said Jim Grotha, a member of one of the two groups of marine mammal hunters in Cook Inlet. "They could be doing a lot of studying. How many ships come in here in a year? What are the discharges? What is the noise level? There are a million questions they could come up with."

Lifelong hunter Joel Blatchford, who organized one Native group and joined a suit against the federal government to list the whales as endangered, said he had always argued that the whales should be left completely alone until recovery began.

"I think I was right," he said.

To conduct the 2002 count, scientists flew in an airplane for 45 hours between June 4 and 11, covering more than 2,000 square miles of Cook Inlet. When they found whale groups, they would make a series of passes at 100 mph counting the whales they could see from about 800 feet up.

Four observers and a video camera counted an average of 192 whales, winking white and gray as they surfaced in the dingy water, almost all of them in Knik Arm or in the Susitna River delta west of Anchorage. No whales were seen in south of the Forelands, the neck of Cook Inlet near Nikiski.

The trick to a good population estimate hinges on figuring out how many whales were underwater and not seen during the 10 or 15 seconds it takes the plane to zoom over. That's a complicated calculation, depending on previous studies of beluga dive times and other factors. It takes Hobbs and his technicians about six months to finish the work.

To get more accurate estimates, Hobbs hopes to track local belugas this June and tell how long they stay underwater, using special recording tags attached to the whales with suction cups.

Variety of sea life sighted

A team of biologists searching for beluga whales in Cook Inlet last June surveyed about 2,000 square miles over the course of eight days. They recorded other sightings of marine mammals during their flights, providing a snapshot of Cook Inlet life.

Upper Inlet (not including beluga whales):

Harbor seals: 125 seen in 11 sightings, mostly in the western Susitna River delta and the Chickaloon River at the mouth of Turnagain Arm.

Lower Cook Inlet south of Chisik Island/Ninilchik:

Harbor seals: 1,481 seen in 57 sightings, with 470 at Iniskin Bay and 270 at the Fox River.

Sea otters: 151 seen in 27 sightings, all south of Anchor Point.

Steller sea lions: 54 seen in six sightings, most in Kamishak Bay on the west side of the Inlet

Humpback whales: 20 seen in groups of one to three along the inlet's southern boundary.

The author, Doug O'Harra can be reached at do' and 907-257-4334.