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. The moratorium will remain in effect until October.
The National Marine Fisheries Services estimates that there were about 1,000 beluga whales in 1990, but numbers fell to about 650 by 1994 and 347 by 1998.
Subsistence hunts are believed to be the primary cause of the decline. An average of 37 whales were landed annually between 1994 and 1998, and NMFS estimates that a equal number of whales were shot but lost in the inlet's powerful tides each year.
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 would offset efforts to restore the animals to sustainable levels, he said.
People who violate the moratorium face a $25,000 fine and as long as a year in jail.
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