The National Marine Fisheries Service has released a draft environmental impact statement regarding the subsistence harvest of beluga whales in Cook Inlet. The preferred alternative, of the several proposed, is to allow two belugas to be hunted per year.
A prominent Native hunting group would like to see a harvest level of 4 percent of the estimated population, which would allow for a flexible harvest total, depending on how many beluga return to Cook Inlet each summer.
Brad Smith, a biologist with NMFS in Anchorage, said the draft EIS process has identified subsistence hunting pressure as the main factor in the decline of Cook Inlet beluga stocks. Smith said the draft EIS is intended to give the federal government the tools to manage subsistence beluga hunting in Cook Inlet.
"The Marine Mammal Protec-tion Act allows Natives to harvest for subsistence, but it also says the federal government may not regulate harvest unless the animal is depleted and that we've promulgated regulations," Smith said.
NMFS estimates the population of Cook Inlet belugas dropped by 50 percent between 1994 and 1998, prompting them in May to list the stock as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
In recent years, as many as 70 belugas a year have been struck or harvested in Cook Inlet.
In any case, Dan Alex, project coordinator for the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Committee, is not impressed with the numbers NMFS uses and disputes their arithmetic.
"What they are proposing to do is based on their baseline information," Alex said. "I'm not challenging them on their procedure, but I have a lot of problem with the sketchiness of their baseline information."
The Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Committee is an organization of Cook Inlet villages and Native beluga hunters.
Alex said there is too much of a "fudge-factor" built into the NMFS numbers.
"You have to use significant numbers," he said. "You can't place credibility on computations when their baseline is not equally adequate."
One of the figures Alex disputes is exactly how many Cook Inlet belugas there are. Recent estimates put them at around 350. Past estimates ranged in excess of 1,000.
There are also disputes as to where the whales go in the winter. NMFS has stated in the past that Cook Inlet belugas are an isolated group that does not leave Cook Inlet in the winter. However, Alex said, inlet belugas may congregate with other populations, such as the Western Alaska and Bering Sea stock, in the winter.
"If they scientifically document that the whales really do live in Cook Inlet, then there really is cause for concern," Alex said. "But if they document that they join the Bristol Bay belugas, then we really have to take a real hard look at their statements."
Alex said he believes Cook Inlet belugas may simply be avoiding the inlet because they know there has been heavy hunting pressure on them. He said after a period of commercial hunting in the 1960s, the whales simply refused to show up the next year.
Smith said two inlet belugas have been fitted with satellite tracking tags, with the hope researchers will be able to trace the animals to their wintering grounds.
Alex said that was a step in the right direction in pinning down how many Cook Inlet belugas there actually are.
NMFS examined several different harvest levels before settling on two strikes a year, inletwide. Other options considered were: no strikes; one strike per year through 2007, with an increase to two after that; and 2 percent of the annual estimated population. Alex said NMFS consulted him while it was drawing up the draft EIS, and he suggested a 4 percent harvest would be preferable.
"They talked with me, but they didn't listen," Alex said. "We have to go past this. They're a government agency and they are proposing a long-term moratorium."
NMFS also would like to see the end to commercial sale of subsistence-harvested beluga to reduce the demand of the Native delicacy.
"We know how important Native foods are," Smith said. "It's the Native way to provide for people who don't have access to them because of their age, but we're at a point where it's affecting the resource."
On this, Alex agreed.
"The incentive for earning money has caused problems with harvest levels," he said. "There hasn't been any commercial sale since the moratorium."
The draft EIS also examined other possible causes for the decline of Cook Inlet belugas, such as contaminants or noise pollution from oil platforms or municipal effluent, but did not find a man-made reason the whales could be declining, other than hunting.
"I don't think NMFS is malicious in what they're doing," Alex said. "I think they're skating a fine line between harvest and conservation groups. It's not an easy position for them to be in."
Alex said he probably won't have a formal comment to file with NMFS because of his dispute over the numbers, and he does not know yet if the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Commission board will meet before the comment period is over. Comments on the proposed rule are due by Nov. 27. There also will be a hearing before an administrative law judge on Dec. 5, in Anchorage. Anyone interested in giving testimony at the hearing needs to register by Nov. 1.
The complete text of the draft EIS is available on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Alaska Region Web site at: www.fakr.noaa.gov.
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