ANCHORAGE - The Cook Inlet beluga whale population continues to show signs of recovery after a decade-long decline.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reports that an aerial survey conducted last June counted 211 whales. From that, federal scientists estimate there are 386 whales in the inlet.
The increase marks the fourth year in a row that scientists have seen an increase in beluga numbers in the inlet.
"I would say it's good news in that comparing this to 1998, it shows more than a 3 percent annual growth rate," said federal biologist Rod Hobbs of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.
Once thought to number 1,300 in Cook Inlet, the number of whales in this genetically isolated group dropped to about 350 in 1998 and 1999. Federal biologists blamed the decline on overhunting by Alaska Natives.
Hunting initially was halted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Under a co-management agreement with the federal agency, a Native crew from Tyonek harvested one whale last summer. A lawsuit arguing that the whales need additional protection under the Endangered Species Act from a broad range of other human factors continues in federal court.