The National Marine Fisheries Service plans to list the beluga whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet as a depleted population, but the designation pleases neither environmentalists nor industry representatives.
The inlet's population of the small white whales has dropped to less than half the maximum known total, triggering a "depleted" listing, service biologist Brad Smith said Friday.
The last Cook Inlet beluga census, taken in 1998, counted 347 of the whales. In 1994, about 675 were counted in the wide channel that leads from the Anchorage area to the Gulf of Alaska. It is believed that 1,000 of the whales were in the inlet in the 1980s.
"Depleted" status would allow the service to regulate subsistence hunting of the belugas by Alaska's native peoples, Smith said.
"That is one part of the puzzle that allows us to begin recovery of the stock," he said.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, indigenous groups may hunt whales and other marine mammals used as traditional food sources. Federal officials may limit the hunt only if the targeted populations are listed as depleted, threatened or endangered, Smith said.
Native groups have voluntarily ceased hunting the whales because of the decline, he said. "The hunters themselves recognized the importance of this issue early on," he said.
The service's recommendation will be published in the Federal Register and will be subject to public comment before Commerce Secretary William Daley takes final action, Smith said.
The service is evaluating a petition from environmental groups to list the population as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, he said. It has until spring to make a decision.
A "threatened" or "endangered" listing "would have a little more teeth," Smith said, allowing for restrictions on a wide variety of activities in the inlet and the naming of specially protected habitat conservation areas.
So far, the service does not believe that the inlet's belugas are in danger of disappearing, he said.
But Kris Balliet, director of the Alaska office of the Center for Marine Conservation, said stronger action was needed to protect a "small and isolated and vulnerable population."
Its size is such that a single catastrophe could lead to the population's extinction, Balliet said.
Ken Freeman, executive director of the pro-industry Resource Development Council of Alaska, said businesses feared that any protective listing for the whale population might stall industry activities.