Congress closes gap in beluga protection

Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

A rider attached to the last appropriation bill of the 106th Congress plugs a gap in protection for Cook Inlet beluga whales.

Carol Tocco, spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau, said a 1999 law put a moratorium on hunting inlet belugas, except under a cooperative agreement between NMFS and Alaska Native groups. However, that expired Oct. 1.

NMFS has proposed new regulations to limit Native hunters to two strikes per year, also under a cooperative management agreement, until the whale population recovers. However, those regulations are under review by an administrative law judge, she said, and it could be months until the new rules take effect.

"Once the moratorium expired, and until the new regulations are in place, that opened the possibility for unregulated hunting," Tocco said.

So in December, Congress passed a rider banning subsistence hunting of inlet belugas indefinitely, unless it could be done under the same cooperative agreement. President Bill Clinton signed the bill before he left office, Tocco said. That closes the door to unregulated hunting.

The inlet beluga population took an apparent nose dive during the 1990s. In 1979, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated the inlet population to be at least 1,293. However, NMFS surveys put the population at 653 in 1994 and at just 347 in 1998. NMFS concluded that overhunting caused the decline from 1994 to 1998.

"The magnitude of the decline, approximately 300 animals, is consistent with estimates of harvest over this same time period, i.e. approximately 316 animals," states the draft environmental impact statement for the proposed regulations now before Administrative Law Judge Parlen McKenna.

Congress passed the first moratorium in May 1999. NMFS reached an agreement with the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council allowing the harvest of a single beluga in 2000. However, there were no inlet belugas taken in 1999 or 2000.

NMFS estimated the inlet population at 435 belugas after its 2000 surveys, Tocco said, but the margin of error in the estimate is so large that it is impossible to say whether the beluga population has changed since 1998. Tocco said NMFS biologists are 95 percent certain the 2000 population was somewhere between 276 and 679 belugas.

Given the margin of error, it would take seven or eight years of increasing counts to prove the beluga population is rising, she said.

Despite the survey results, Tocco said, biologists are certain the population has not increased by 78 belugas since 1999.

"That's a 22 percent increase," she said. "It's not physically possible for the population to reproduce at that rate. A beluga population of that size can increase by 2 percent to 6 percent per year."

Nor could there be that much immigration, said NMFS biologist Barbara Mahoney. Genetic tests on 100 inlet belugas suggest the inlet population is separate from populations in Bristol Bay, the Beaufort Sea and the eastern Bering and Chukchi seas, she said.

"Cook Inlet belugas are geographically and genetically very separate," Mahoney said.

A few belugas occasionally are sighted in Prince William Sound and near Yakutat, she said, and biologists believe those come from Cook Inlet.

"But there are not large numbers, so those wouldn't change the population trend in Cook Inlet," she said.

NMFS estimates that with no hunting, the inlet's beluga population will grow to the recovery goal of 780 animals by 2022. Allowing Native hunters two strikes per year would delay the recovery until 2025, it estimates.

During a hearing last fall before McKenna, though, the Marine Mammal Commission, a scientific advisory panel, argued that there is too much room for error in NMFS population projections, and two strikes per year would be too many.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have argued that other factors, such as oil and gas development, shipping noise and discharges from sewage treatment plants could figure in the decline or affect the ability of the depleted population to recover. They have sued to force NMFS to list belugas for protection under the Endanger-ed Species Act. An endangered listing would force NMFS to designate critical beluga habitat and review proposed development to be sure that threatens neither critical habitat nor belugas.

Mahoney said she expects McKenna to issue his recommendations by the end of February. NMFS could publish the final regulations by early May, she said, and the rules would take 30 days later.

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