ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska Natives of various ethnic heritages would share responsibility for dividing up harvest of beluga whales in Cook Inlet under an agreement reached Wednesday.
The stipulation agreed to by most parties in a U.S. District Court hearing Wednesday could help heal a bitter rift between two groups of local Native hunters -- those from the Inlet's traditional Athabascan villages and those of Inupiat or Yupik heritage who now live in the region.
During the past decade, the Cook Inlet beluga population has plunged from an estimated 13 hundred whales to just 350 today. Federal biologists blame the decline on subsistence hunting. Under proposed regulations, the recovery of the Cook Inlet beluga population would rely almost exclusively on restricting Native subsistence hunting to two whales per year over the next 25 years.
But the question of who would decide which Native villages or hunters would get those kills has hampered efforts to manage the local harvest and work out a recovery scheme. It has been a lightning rod for bad feelings and disputes between many local Athabascan tribal leaders and Natives, often with Inupiat heritage, who also hunted the whales.
''It's the issue behind the issue,'' said Michael Payne, assistant regional administrator of protected resources for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
After the allocation debate was repeatedly raised Wednesday, administrative law Judge Parlen McKenna proposed that the whole question be taken off the table. He asked that attorneys stipulate that it be decided later by local Alaska Natives as they hammer out harvest details with NMFS.
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