ANCHORAGE (AP) -- 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 the National Marine Fisheries Service.
But that doesn't mean the number of whales has necessarily dropped sharply since the 2001 estimate of 386.
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.
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 overhunting 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.
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 the fast-moving animals that spend most of their lives submerged in silty water than about shifts in the actual number of Cook Inlet whales, Hobbs said. The count is conducted by airplane.
''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.
''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.
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.''
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