Cook Inlet beluga whales are back, and so is concern over the state of their population.
Besides a moratorium on hunting the animals, a state Superior Court judge on Monday restricted development on 126 oil and gas lease tracts to protect beluga habitat.
Anchorage Judge Sigurd Murphy prohibited or restricted oil and gas activities on the tracts, which conservation groups say are important feeding and breeding grounds for belugas. The tracts are around the mouths of the Kenai, Chuitna, Beluga, Ivan, Susitna, Little Susitna, Chickaloon, Drift, Big, Kustatan, MacArthur and Middle rivers, which stretch from Knik and Turnagain arms southward.
From the Chuitna River northward, no top-down exploration or development is allowed, while exploration on the southern tracts is barred between April and the end of October. While top-down drilling is prohibited, shore-based directional drilling is permitted. An areawide oil and gas lease sale is proposed for August.
"The beluga population has plummeted nearly 50 percent in the past four years, and the court agreed the state has done virtually nothing since last year to address the issue of beluga whale habitat in the lease sale area," said Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inlet Keeper, a Homer-based environmental watchdog group.
National Marine Fisheries Service biologists estimate there were around 1,000 belugas in Cook Inlet in the 1980s. Now, they figure less than 350 survive. About 37 belugas, on average, have been taken during subsistence hunts each year.
Last summer, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens pushed through legislation that prohibits subsistence hunting of Cook Inlet belugas until Oct. 1. That moratorium is nearly half over, but the federal government is taking no chances. The National Marine Fisheries Service is offering a $2,500 reward leading to the conviction of anyone hunting or harassing the whales, and NMFS officials are increasing their upper Cook Inlet patrols.
"What got us to step up our patrols is we got an anonymous call that Native hunters will be hunting belugas in Kachemak Bay," said NMFS enforcement officer Jim Wisher. "We heard several were willing to go to jail to allow the courts to decide if government has the right to restrict hunting."
So far there has been no contact with any hunters. Wisher and his partner Dennis Thaute are tasked with patrolling from Anchorage to south of Kachemak Bay.
"We're going to try and keep an eye on the beluga herds and run interference with Native tribes and try to convince them not to harvest any belugas until there is a co-management agreement," Wisher said.
Under Stevens' legislation, Natives can hunt belugas if a negotiated agreement is reached between NMFS and an authorized Native group. To date, no cooperative management agreement has been made.
Taking a whale, or even harassing one, is a violation of the moratorium and can net an offender fines between $10,000 and $20,000 and a year in jail.
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