ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The depleted population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet appears to be holding its own for a third consecutive year after a decade of plummeting numbers.
A survey conducted last June produced an estimate of 435 whales. That's the largest number since 1997 and a large jump over the 357 mammals estimated in 1999.
''It does look better than the number we did have, but it's still below what I'd like to see out there,'' said Jon James, president of the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council, a group representing local Native villages and hunters.
Scientists said the apparent increase of about 80 whales in one year owes more to statistics and survey methods than it does to whale biology.
The numbers should be viewed with caution, said Ron Hobbs, the federal biologist who oversaw the complex calculations. The estimate could vary from the actual number by as much as 23 percent, Hobbs said.
''I think it's good news, but you can't assume that it's grown by 20 percent,'' said Hobbs, of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. ''It's going to take four or five years of data, at the precision that we get, before we could actually say statistically that (the beluga population) has grown.''
The Cook Inlet beluga population once was thought to number more than 1,300 animals, but that fell to approximately 347 by 1998.
Federal biologists blamed the decline on hunting by Alaska Natives. Several Native and environmental groups believe, however, that other factors like shipping, noise, commercial fishing and pollution played a role.
The whales were listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act last year. A coalition of environmental groups filed suit to have the whales listed under the more stringent Endangered Species Act.
No harvest has taken place since 1998.
Biologists have been meeting with representatives of Native and environmental groups this winter to work out details for future harvests as part of a federal rule-making process under a U.S. Coast Guard administrative law judge.
Pending a co-management agreement between the NMFS and local Native hunters, six whales could be struck or killed over the next four years, with four whales going to Tyonek hunters and two whales available to Native hunters in Anchorage.
Under the proposed regulations, which will come under public review once complete, future changes in beluga abundance could trigger emergency shutdowns or increases in the quota.
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