By DON HUNTER
Anchorage Daily News
January 09, 2007
That's a splash of cold water for agency biologists who had hoped a virtual end to subsistence whaling several years ago would have produced a solid recovery trend by now.
"At least for the data we have since the end of the period of high harvests, the population hasn't increased ... and the fact that it appears to be declining further is certainly a concern," said Rod Hobbs, one of the biologists who produced the review.
"And at the moment, we don't know of any other mechanism acting on the population that would keep it from increasing."
The "status review and extinction assessment" by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle says annual surveys of the Cook Inlet belugas suggest only a marginal likelihood that their numbers will increase, and a 65 percent chance the population will shrink.
The bad news comes as federal agencies are considering whether the Cook Inlet belugas, a genetically distinct population that does not intermingle with other beluga stocks, should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. That prospect is applauded by environmental and other groups that have petitioned for such a listing, but feared by Cook Inlet area local governments and agencies like the Port of Anchorage and the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, where officials say stronger protections for whales would mean costly restrictions on development.
A regional recommendation on an endangered listing should be out sometime this winter, said Brad Smith, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. A decision on whether a listing is warranted or not would be made in Washington, D.C., in the spring, followed by more scientific reviews and public comment.
Scientists believe about 1,300 belugas inhabited Cook Inlet in the 1970s and early 1980s; by the late 1990s, their numbers had dropped to an estimated 350, and the most recent published estimate, for 2005, put their numbers at 278. An "abundance estimate" for 2006 probably will come in at about 300, Smith said, but counts since 1999, when subsistence hunts all but ended, show no significant population growth.
Even the 1,300 estimate from the late 1970s could have represented a population under pressure, Hobbs said. Cook Inlet belugas were targeted by commercial hunters periodically over the last century, and for sport hunting in the 1960s.
"In the 1970s, the population was already depleted to some extent," he said.
Smith said the outlook for Cook Inlet belugas might be even more dismal. The extinction assessment assumes only one whale a year will be lost to killer whale predation. If orcas kill more, extinction could come sooner than 100 years, he said.
Craig Matkin, a marine mammal biologist who contracts with the Alaska Sea Life Center and other agencies, said the extinction study shows federal scientists are recognizing what he and others have argued for a long time.
"I think this report is a turning point," Matkin said. "There's no doubt about it (extinction) if this decline continues ... and that the decline is due to some other kinds of effects than Native subsistence hunts."
Hobbs and others said a logical next step would be to turn the focus of research to what other factors are affecting the belugas.
"There's a variety that have been suggested, from pollution from Anchorage and other municipalities to industrial waste runoff, street runoff," Hobbs said. "We really don't know. We haven't been able to study the whales in a way that would allow us to determine that."
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