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Anchoragae Daily News, September 25, 2008

No decline in count of Cook Inlet's beluga whales
By Mary Pemberton

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The number of beluga whales estimated to be in Cook Inlet off Alaska's largest city have not increased in the last year, leading critics to reiterate their call for greater protections over the objections of Gov. Sarah Palin.

The new estimated count will be considered when deciding if the white whales should be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act - a move first opposed by Palin, the GOP vice presidential nominee, last year over concerns that the listing would harm the local economy.

Federal scientists have said the Cook Inlet whales have a 26 percent chance of going extinct in the next 100 years. A decision is required by Oct. 20.

There were an estimated 375 beluga whales counted last June in waters near Anchorage, the same number as last year, according to the annual survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There were 302 belugas counted in 2006, up from an all-time low of 278 in 2005.

At one time there were perhaps as many as 1,300 Cook Inlet belugas. The decline is believed to be because of overharvesting by Alaska Native subsistence hunters before the hunt was sharply curtailed nearly a decade ago.

Between 1999 and 2007, subsistence hunters harvested just five whales. No whales were harvested in the last two years.

Scientists with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service conducted this year's survey in early June when the whales gather to feed on fish near the mouths of rivers that empty into upper Cook Inlet.

Scientists for seven days flew over the upper inlet to manually count the whales. Photographs and videos also were taken of whale groups to help refine the population estimate.

Once the survey observations were analyzed, the population estimate was the same as in 2007, government scientists said Thursday.

"Probably something more needs to be done for this species to recover, the question is what," said Rod Hobbs, an operation research analyst at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

Cook Inlet's beluga population was declared depleted in 2000 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Last year, NOAA said it supported listing the whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. An April deadline was set for making a decision. The state of Alaska asked for a six-month extension.

If the whales were listed, Cook Inlet has a variety of activities including oil and gas leasing and seismic studies that would receive greater scrutiny, said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, a group pushing for the listing.

"What this shows is that the population is not increasing," Cummings said. "This species should have been protected years ago."

Palin has said she prefers that the National Marine Fisheries Service work with the state and other scientists to finalize and implement a conservation plan.

Palin spokesman Bill McAllister said Thursday that Palin's position remains unchanged.

The Cook Inlet belugas are considered genetically distinct. They are one of five groups of beluga whales in U.S. waters. The others are in Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea.

Photo © Martin Tiller