April 16, 2007
"NOAA Fisheries recognizes the importance of Cook Inlet beluga subsistence harvests to Alaska Natives, and have strongly advocated these traditional hunts," said Kaja Brix, who leads the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Region. "Unfortunately, even subsistence harvests must take a back seat to the need to recover depleted marine mammal stocks, especially those which have been severely reduced in numbers, such as these whales."
NOAA Fisheries is expected to announce soon whether or not the agency will propose that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The 2006 population estimate of 302 belugas confirms an annual 5.6 percent population decline since 1994 and a 4.1 percent annual decline since 1999, when beluga harvest was regulated.
"The latest population abundance estimates confirm a continuing decline," said Brix, "It will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet the dual goals of maintaining a subsistence harvest for the near term while recovering the population itself."
The Cook Inlet beluga harvests have been limited since 1999 from zero to two whales a year. NOAA Fisheries Service scientists expected the Cook Inlet beluga population to recover as a result, but their annual counts show the population continues to decline.
Between 1999 and 2006, Alaska Native hunters took a total of five beluga whales for subsistence in Cook Inlet. Before the announcement to cancel the whale hunt, the subsistence hunt planned for 2007 would have allowed the take of two beluga whales.
"We don't have the full answer why the Cook Inlet beluga population is not recovering as anticipated," said Brix. "Hunting has been extremely limited, contaminant loads are comparable or less than other Alaskan and Canadian beluga populations, and the beluga strandings were within the expected range in 2004, 2005 and 2006."
The Cook Inlet beluga population is estimated to have numbered more than 1,300 belugas as recently as the 1970s. The Cook Inlet belugas population declined nearly 50 percent between 1994 and 1999.
NOAA Fisheries Service has worked with the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council, the Native Village of Tyonek, Cook Inlet Treaty Tribes and Alaska Native beluga hunters during the last decade on Cook Inlet belugas and co-management agreements.
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