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  PlanetArk 17 Jan 07
Beluga Whales Faltering in Alaskan Waters
Story by Yereth Rosen

Yahoo News 8 Jan 07
Cook Inlet belugas face extinction risk

By Mary Pemberton, Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - The beluga whales swimming off Alaska's largest city are at considerable risk of going extinct unless something changes, a federal study says.

The study by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle says if the Cook Inlet belugas go extinct, another group of the white whales probably won't come in to swim the silty waters off Anchorage.

"The population is discrete and unique with respect to the species, and if it should fail to survive, it is highly unlikely that Cook Inlet would be repopulated with belugas," the study says.

The study found there is a 26 percent chance the Cook Inlet belugas will be extinct in 100 years and a 68 percent chance they'll be gone in 300 years. To make matters worse, it finds that the whales are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a catastrophic event because they are tending to gather in a restricted area in the upper Cook Inlet.

"At reduced numbers and with contraction of their range, this population is far more vulnerable to stranding, predation or disease," the report says.

Alaska has five distinct geographic populations of beluga whales. Apart from about 300 Cook Inlet belugas, other groups are doing well with a total population estimate of between 35,000 and 40,000 animals. The others swim the western Alaska coastal waters of Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea and the eastern Chukchi Sea; others are located in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska and Canada.

The report is disheartening in light of efforts made in recent years to save the belugas.

One of the problems is that scientists still do not know why numbers are declining. It was thought that subsistence hunting, where about 70 whales were killed each year, was to blame.

However, severe restrictions on subsistence hunting in place since 1999 have failed to turn the situation around. "We thought it was entirely the result of the subsistence harvest but the subsistence harvest may have been masking another problem," said Rod Hobb, a biologist who helped prepare the extinction assessment.

New population numbers released Monday show a slight increase, but do little to change the overall picture, he said Tuesday.

"The overall trend is downwards," Hobb said. There are now an estimated 302 beluga whales in Cook Inlet, slightly higher than the 2005 estimate of 278 animals, according to annual surveys conducted by NOAA Fisheries Service biologists. The numbers are well below an average of 370 whales.

"If you step back to look at the big picture, the annual estimates from 1994 to 2006 show an average decline of 5.6 percent per year," said Doug DeMaster, administrator of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

The Cook Inlet beluga population declined by more than half between 1994 and 1999. The population was declared depleted in 2000 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Now, the National Marine Fisheries Service is looking at whether the whales deserve increased protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. A recommendation is expected by April.

Hobb said 2,000 or more belugas likely swam the Cook Inlet but numbers had dropped to about 1,300 by the 1970s.

In 1994, the first year that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game conducted a complete survey of Cook Inlet, it found 653 belugas. The annual survey has trended downward since, reaching a low of 278 whales in 2005. The 2006 survey shows the slight increase.

"They have this downward trend and we don't know why that is," Hobb said.

PlanetArk 17 Jan 07
Beluga Whales Faltering in Alaskan Waters
Story by Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Beluga whales were once so thick in the waters along Alaska's biggest city that boaters had to take care to avoid bumping them.

But now Cook Inlet's population of small white whales, beloved by locals and tourists, may be headed for extinction, according to a report from government biologists last week. A new count by the National Marine Fisheries Service puts the Beluga whale population at 302, less than half the number in 1994 and well below the 1,000 to 2,000 believed to have been swimming in earlier years in the glacier-fed channel that runs from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska.

"There's basically a one in four chance that this population is going to become extinct in 100 years," said Bruce Smith, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist studying the belugas.

The Cook Inlet belugas, a genetically distinct population already listed as a "depleted" and meriting special management under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, are candidates for new safeguards under the Endangered Species Act.

Biologists say the reason for the precipitous decline since the 1990s was simple -- overharvesting by the area's Alaska Natives, mostly Athabascan Indians, who are entitled by law to pursue their traditional whale hunts.

Native groups agreed to curb hunting until stocks return to higher levels, but that does not appear to be helping the whales recover, according to Smith. Environmentalists say it should be no surprise that belugas are faltering in Alaska's most industrialized waterway.


Oil drilling, associated bustle and noise, vessel-traffic pressures from thriving cargo-shipping and commercial fishing activities, sewage and storm water runoff from Alaska's most densely populated region and other industrial factors are likely hurting the belugas, according to environmentalists.

Particular scrutiny should focus on the oil and gas industry, with its constant marine disposal of wastewater and its reliance on loud seismic surveys that disrupt the underwater whale communications, said Bob Shavelson, executive director of the environmental group Cook Inletkeeper.

"Everybody said, 'OK, it was the hunting.' Everybody said, 'OK, once we get a handle on the hunting the problem will go away.' Lo and behold, we're not seeing any increase; we're seeing what's likely a decrease," Shavelson said.

Oil and gas industry representatives fear new restrictions will unfairly burden them. "There's a lot of interest in being able to use the inlet the way it's been used by the people, bringing all the groceries in and all the cars in as well as the oil and gas, and still protect the belugas at the same time," said Judy Brady, a former state natural resources commissioner who heads the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Past tests have shown that belugas and other sea life in Cook Inlet are untainted by industrial pollutants, Brady said. Smith said it may be the nonpollution factors, such as noise, inadvertent harassment, large-scale beach strandings, disease outbreaks and the occasional predation by killer whales that are keeping the beluga population low.

Those factors might have been easily absorbed in the past, but not anymore. "It could be now that the population is reduced to the point where some threats and impacts that weren't threatening to the whole stock, now are," he said.

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