ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Cook Inlet beluga whales won't be designated as an endangered species under Alaska's endangered species statute because the marine mammals are not threatened with extinction, Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue said Thursday.
Rue made the announcement in response to a petition filed by Trustees of Alaska, a law firm representing six environmental groups. The same group has filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service. The federal agency decided last month not to place the belugas on the endangered list but continue to designate them as ''depleted'' under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Rue said that state law doesn't allow him to list individual stocks or populations as endangered unless scientists formally recognize them as a bone fide ''subspecies.''
Jack Sterne, a lawyer for the Trustees of Alaska, called Rue's interpretation of the state law flawed. Stern said Cook Inlet belugas should be considered a subspecies because they don't inter-breed with other populations.
''There's no question that this breed is in trouble in Cook Inlet,'' Sterne said. The environmental group hasn't yet decided how it will respond to Rue's decision, Sterne said.
Rue said also that the Cook Inlet beluga population increased slightly in 1999 after declining rapidly in recent years.
A count by the National Marine Fisheries Service show the Cook Inlet population at 357 belugas in 1999, compared to 347 the previous year, according to a press release from Fish and Game. Overharvesting has been blamed for driving down the number of beluga whales in the inlet from about 1,000 a decade ago. Before Congress mandated a ban last year, Alaska Natives killed about 70 whales a year.
''While we share Trustee's concern about the health of this important population, we believe the restrictions which are now in place under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act will enable the population to recover,'' Rue said in a prepared statement.
Sterne said a 10-whale increase is too small to be significant.
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