Arctic Science Journeys
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Cook Inlet Belugas

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INTRO: Beluga whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet near Anchorage are thought to be genetically unique among the 50,000 belugas that live in waters off Alaska. That's why, when their population reached a new low last year, Congress passed restrictions on subsistence hunting by the state's indigenous Natives. Now, as Doug Schneider reports in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio, belugas are poised for a comeback.

STORY: Any day now, salmon will begin returning to their spawning grounds in Alaska's Cook Inlet. And you can bet beluga whales won't be far behind. The sight of dozens of beluga whales hungrily chasing their favorite prey is a sure sign that spring has arrived in Alaska.

beluga whale
Beluga whale range, feeding habits, life history and more...

And this year, more beluga whales are expected in the inlet, thanks to new restrictions on subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives. Dr. Doug DeMaster is the director of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, Washington.

DEMASTER: "The good news is that at least in 1999, there was a legislative fix put into place in cooperation with the Native hunters and there was no harvest of any Cook Inlet belugas this year. Clearly, getting a handle on subsistence harvests is a very important contribution to the recovery of this stock."

Alaska Natives have each year harvested anywhere from 20 to 100 of the inlet's beluga whales for subsistence food. But overhunting has taken a toll. Beluga numbers have dropped some 65 percent in Cook Inlet since the 1980s, when more than 1,000 of the small white whales plied the inlet. Last year, federal biologists estimated the population at just 357.

With hunting restricted, DeMaster is optimistic the population will show growth when it's surveyed again this summer. Eventually he'd like to see the population recover to 1994 levels.

DEMASTER: "Where we saw it in 1994 certainly wasn't the peak. That was after considerable harvest that we think knocked the population down already. If we can get the population back up to 650, we'd be feeling pretty good about things."

To ensure the beluga's recovery, the National Marine Fisheries Service is going ahead with its plan to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The listing gives the fisheries agency regulatory control over hunting. But, ironically, such a listing could eventually allow limited hunting of the whales, perhaps as early as next year.

DEMASTER: "A stock that is formally listed as depleted allows the fisheries service to regulate Native subsistence harvest. And then, working within a co-management arena, the goal would be to try to agree to take levels on the order of perhaps one or two animals a year. I know that's a very small number but at this point we think that taking more than one or two animals a year will increase recovery time more than the agency is comfortable with. We're trying to be consistent with mandates under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and we're working with the Native community. But at this point one or two I think we could justify. More than that would be difficult."

DeMaster says his agency's decision to list the species as depleted, and a resumption of hunting, likely will trigger a legal challenge, either by environmentalists, development interests or Alaska Natives themselves.

DEMASTER: "There's very strong feelings out there about whether or not this population should be hunted at all. Other people have said the population should be listed under the Endangered Species Act."

With protection and limited hunting, DeMaster expects the population to grow at about five percent per year. At that rate, it will still take about 25 years for the population to rebound to 650 animals.

OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.

For more information about beluga whales, visit these web pages:

About Beluga Whale

National Marine Mammal Laboratory

Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:

Dr. Doug DeMaster, Director
National Marine Mammal Laboratory
NOAA-National Marine Fisheries Service
Alaska Fisheries Science Center
7600 Sand Point Way NE F/AKC4
Seattle, WA 98115-6349
Ph: (206) 526-4045

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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