Scientists monitor tagged Beluga whales cruising Cook Inlet

Posted: Tuesday, October 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A young beluga whale that's been tracked by satellite since its capture last month in Knik Arm has made a dramatic migration down the west side of Cook Inlet.

The mammal is offering federal biologists some unprecedented details about where the depleted local whales go when winter arrives.

''We're real curious where he's going to end up,'' said management biologist Barbara Mahoney, with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage. ''But we figured they left the upper Inlet this time of year.''

While the whale reveals secrets of its late fall tour through the chill waters near Redoubt Volcano, humans ashore are facing off over how much protection local belugas need to avoid extinction.

Proposed harvest regulations have been released by the government for comment. Environmental groups have sued -- contending that the whales should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Cook Inlet's genetically isolated of beluga whales once was thought to number nearly 1,300 animals. But that number has plunged over the past decade, to an estimated 357 whales in 1999.

Federal biologists are blaming the decline on hunting, which averaged 67 whales struck or killed annually between 1994 and 1998.

The agency last spring listed the whales as depleted under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

No whales have been reported taken by hunters during the past two seasons, although the Village of Tyonek had permission to harvest one whale this year under an agreement between NMFS and the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council.

The 2000 population estimate won't be finished until mid-November.

Under a draft conservation plan recently released, beluga recovery would rely on limiting Native subsistence hunting to two whales each season during the next quarter-century.

Along with other restrictions and monitoring, NMFS projected that the whales could rebound to a sustainable population of 780 animals by 2025.

Because the scheme eliminates the cause of the decline, the agency is confident the whales will bounce back, Mahoney said.

But a coalition of six environmental groups and former Native hunter Joel Blatchford disagree. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Sept. 19 in Washington, D.C., the coalition contends that NMFS violated federal law by not listing the animals as threatened or endangered and must be ordered to make a new determination on their status.

The environmentalists had petitioned NMFS in 1999 to list the belugas and pressed the agency last summer when it was late responding to a federally mandated deadline.

But the issue raises the stakes across the region.

An Endangered Species listing could force unprecedented scrutiny of many human activities in Cook Inlet, from commercial fishing to oil and gas extraction to wastewater treatment.

''If we have an ESA listing, and large portions of Cook Inlet are identified as critical habitat, we will have to change the way we do everything,'' said Ken Freeman, executive director of the Resource Development Council.

''We want to see the beluga whale population recover,'' he told the Anchorage Daily News. ''(But) an ESA listing right now is overkill, because it regulates other activity that has nothing to do with the decline.''

As the lawsuit proceeds and people comment about some proposed regulations, tracking local whales with a satellite transmitter as they move toward winter feeding grounds has become a critical task for the agency.

The gray juvenile, nicknamed ''Paul,'' was among two belugas captured and fitted with tracking devices during a 10-day project that centered on Eagle Bay, about 10 miles northeast of Anchorage.

For another three- to four months, the two tags will transmit the whales' locations when they surface, and report the average frequency, depth and time of dives over six-hour periods.

In what initially surprised biologists, Paul remained in Knik Arm until early October, raising questions about what it and other whales were eating.

The National Marine Fisheries Service's Mahoney speculated that the fall run of silvers might be larger than realized or that the whales were scavenging spawned-out salmon carcasses flushed from rivers.

Then, a few weeks ago, Paul swam past Point MacKenzie and began moving, river mouth by river mouth.

By Oct. 17, the whale was as far south as the mainland off Kalgin Island. After a visit north to Trading Bay, the whale again moved south.

On Oct. 22, the animal was by the mouth of Big River, directly across Cook Inlet from Kenai.

The other whale, a white adult nicknamed ''Ringo,'' spent the same period cruising Turnagain Arm, possibly with a small pod of other whales that has been sighted, Mahoney said.

In mid-October the whale shot past Chickaloon Bay toward Point Possession and began swimming south along the northeast shore of the Kenai Peninsula. But by the week of Oct. 17 to Oct. 22, the whale had returned Chickaloon Bay.

''I think that it's kind of peculiar that they're kind of distinct now'' in their travels, Mahoney said of the two tagged whales. ''There's really no overlap.''

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