ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Belugas whales have returned to Cook Inlet and federal officials are worried they will be hunted.
''We are very concerned ... that people may be preparing to hunt,'' Stephen A. Meyer, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries office for law enforcement, said Thursday.
A moratorium was placed on the harvest in May 1999 because of plummeting numbers. There were more than 1,000 belugas whales in the early 1990s but numbers fell to 347 by 1998. The moratorium will remain in effect until October.
Subsistence hunts that averaged 37 whales a year between 1994 and 1998 are believed to be the primary cause of the decline.
Michael Payne, division chief for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said an agreement is being finalized that would allow one whale to be harvested in Cook Inlet this year. Any more than that will hurt the efforts to restore the animals to sustainable levels, he said.
People who violate the moratorium face a $25,000 fine and up to one year in jail.
Population models developed by the Fisheries Service predict it would take 50 years for the Cook Inlet belugas to recover to 900 animals if no hunting is allowed. Under a 1 percent annual harvest, which would start at three to four whales per summer, the population would reach about 700 by the year 2050.
People wanting to report illegal belugas hunting can call the following hotline number: 1-800-853-1964.
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