Beluga recovery plans go to judge

Posted: Monday, December 18, 2000

The next word on a proposal to allow Native hunters up to two strikes per year on Cook Inlet belugas will come from a federal judge.

And if the hunt goes forward, Native groups may decide among themselves who can hunt.

The National Marine Fisheries Service gained authority to regulate Native hunting last May when it designated Cook Inlet belugas as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In October, it published a draft environmental impact statement assessing options for restoring the dwindling beluga population. It also published draft regulations to limit hunters to two strikes per year through co-management agreements with Native groups.

"Our concern is that we be able to recover the stock and still provide reasonable access for subsistence," said Brad Smith, supervisor of protected species for the NMFS in Juneau.

NMFS estimates that with no hunting, the inlet's beluga population will grow from about 357 animals today to the recovery goal of 780 animals by 2022. Allowing Native hunters two strikes per year would delay the recovery until 2025, NMFS estimates.

"We've extended the recovery by three years. We think that's a reasonable trade-off to allow subsistence opportunity," Smith said.

The village of Tyonek has a history of beluga hunting, he said, and the first strike likely would go to Tyonek under a co-management agreement with the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council. How-ever, other Native groups also have interests in Cook Inlet belugas.

"Our position now is that we would like to have the latitude to provide for Tyonek as well as other Native groups we know exist but which haven't approached us," Smith said.

Whenever NMFS seeks to restrict Native hunting, the law requires a hearing before an administrative law judge. The hearing on Cook Inlet belugas took place early this month in Anchorage before Judge Parlen McKenna. The goals were to put all the issues on the table and to allow the judge to weigh all sides in the debate before he makes recommendations to NMFS, Smith said.

Once McKenna issues his recommendations, NMFS must publish them and take public comment. Then, it will finalize the environmental impact statement and regulations. Smith said McKenna could make his recommendations within a month. The new rules could take effect in the first half of 2001.

Kasilof resident Joel Blatchford, an Inupiaq hunter whose family came from the Nome area, said he testified at the hearing to protect belugas and his people's right to hunt in Cook Inlet. He said he has not hunted inlet belugas since 1995, because he felt it was time to take a stand to save the population.

"Two strikes is fine," he said. "That's still going to keep the tradition around Cook Inlet, and that's only right."

He said he has no objection to giving the Athabaskan village of Tyonek the first strike. However, his family has hunted Cook Inlet since the 1940s.

"I think if there are only two strikes, the Eskimo people deserve to get one so they can have a potlatch in Anchorage or Seward or even here," he said. "Anchorage is one of the largest Eskimo communities in Alaska."

Smith said NMFS is reluctant to allocate strikes between Native groups since there is no basis for that in the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"Native groups should do that," he said. "The judge may get into that a little, too."

The Marine Mammal Commis-sion, a scientific advisory panel also represented at last week's hearing, believes two strikes per year would be too many.

NMFS based its estimates of how quickly belugas would recover on estimates of the population size and growth, Michael Gosliner, the commission's general counsel, said Thursday from Washington, D.C. He said NMFS did not account for uncertainty in the numbers.

"Their numbers are fuzzy," he said.

For example, he said, NMFS estimates annual population growth at 4 percent per year, but the real number could be 2 percent or 6 percent. If it really is 2 percent, he said, that doubles the recovery time.

It is difficult to predict how many years a given harvest will add to the recovery time, he said. It is easier to predict the percentage increase to recovery time.

Gosliner said NMFS' goal is that hunting should add no more than 10 percent to the recovery time. The commission estimates that there is a 90 percent chance that allowing one strike per year will add no more than 10 percent to the recovery time. That is a good bet.

However, there is only a 36 percent chance that allowing two strikes per year will add no more than 10 percent to the recovery time. That is a poor bet.

"I think maybe where we're headed is 1 1/2 strikes per year for the next four years," he said.

That would be a total of six strikes in four years.

Environmental groups have argued that other factors such as oil and gas development, shipping noise and discharges from sewage treatment plants could figure in the decline or affect the ability of the depleted population to recover. They have sued to force NMFS to list belugas for protection under the Endangered Species Act. An endangered listing would force NMFS to designate critical beluga habitat and review proposed development to be sure that threatens neither critical habitat nor belugas.

Last week's hearing drew representatives environmental groups and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

However, NMFS concludes that overhunting is the primary cause of the decline from 1994 to 1998.

"The magnitude of the decline, approximately 300 animals, is consistent with estimates of harvest over this same time period, i.e. approximately 316 animals," the draft environmental impact statement says.

NMFS credits the moratorium on hunting for an apparent increase in beluga abundance in 1999.

"We think the main reason for the decline and the main fix has to do with overharvest," Smith said. "But we're not saying that's the only cause."

Smith said NMFS will monitor the beluga population to make sure recovery follows curbs on hunting. In addition, it will write a conservation plan exploring what the agency can do across the board -- including addressing issues such as noise and pollution -- to ensure the recovery.

Representatives of the Native Village of Tyonek, the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council and Trustees for Alaska did not return calls.

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