September 30, 2013 at 6:03 pm #407MikeKeymaster
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ANCHORAGE – Biologists say so many beluga whales died last year in
Cook Inlet that Alaska Natives should forgo a subsistence hunt
upper next summer.
But representatives of two Cook Inlet Native whale hunting
organizations said they have misgivings about suspending the small
annual hunt four years after it resumed.
Last year, scientists confirmed the deaths of 20 whales, including
five or six suspected to have died when 46 whales were stranded in
Turnagain Arm near Girdwood on Aug. 28.
Under previous agreements between local Natives and the National
Marine Fisheries Service, the harvest would be stopped if more than
18 whales die in a season.
Formal regulations, however, have not yet been published and made
final, though they contain the same trigger of 18 whale deaths. As a
result, the agency has asked Native groups to voluntarily suspend the
hunt as part of a 2004 co-management agreement, said biologist Kaja
Brix, chief of protected resources in Alaska. Details would be worked
out later this spring.
“The decision does not wholly rest in our hands,” Brix told the
Anchorage Daily News. “We did some accounting, and we sent out a
letter that we hit the trigger in our agreement. … We’re still
trying to get some feedback from the parties.”
But representatives of two Alaska Native whale hunting organizations
question whether the agency’s biologists have taken into account a
recent surge in gray baby belugas.
More belugas swim in Cook Inlet’s silt-saturated waters than
scientists may realize, said Peter Merryman, head of Cook Inlet
Marine Mammal Council and traditional chief of the Athabascan village
“Every spring we see more calves,” he said. “It’s not our fault that
they died naturally (in 2003), and why should we suffer?”
“This is healing food,” added D.J. Blatchford, who along with her
husband, Joel, helps organize hunters of Inupiat background in the
Cook Inlet region. “We have a right to our heritage. It’s part of our
Sorting out whether a limited harvest will take place this summer is
only one of several difficult issues surrounding the depleted whales,
thought to number 350 to 400 in one of the smallest genetically
isolated cetacean populations in the world.
A long-term harvest scheme must be submitted to a federal
administrative law judge later this spring, while a conservation plan
required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act is overdue. A draft of
that plan is expected this spring,
Marine mammal advocates and federal advisers have questioned whether
such efforts will be enough. The environmental law firm Trustees for
Alaska is arguing that the whales should be listed under state law
protecting endangered species in an appeal before the state Supreme
Complicating the picture further, federal biologists say they don’t
know yet whether the whales have begun to recover from a mid-1990s
population crash. The most recent estimate of 357 was released in
January. The actual number of whales could be anywhere from 289 to
440, about the same range reported during each of the past five years.
Counting fast-moving whales that spend most of the time submerged in
opaque, white-capped water can be extremely difficult. Scientists say
it will take several more years to know whether the population is
Once thought to number 1,300, Cook Inlet’s belugas plunged to an
estimated 347 by 1998 in a decline federal biologists blamed on
overhunting by Alaska Natives. Conservation groups have long argued
that other factors such as pollution from Anchorage, discharges from
oil platforms, seismic exploration for oil and gas deposits, shipping
and noise should be studied too.
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