ANCHORAGE - Fifty years ago, a whale hunter in Cook Inlet could count on spotting the bulbous white heads of a beluga pod after a half hour or less on the water.
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But with the whales' rapid and mysterious disappearance, local hunters can be out in the swirling currents and swift tides for three times as long before a pod swims into sight.
The population is now so low that Alaska Native whalers, who have chased belugas for generations, agreed Monday to cancel their annual hunt for the third time in nine years at the request of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agency is expected to decide this week whether to declare the animals endangered.
Scientists once believed that the previously unlimited Native subsistence harvests were to blame for the decline, with an average of 77 whales killed each year between 1995 and 1998. But Cook Inlet belugas continued to die out even after the fisheries service instituted strict hunting limits in 1999, agency biologist Barbara Mahoney said. Since then, a total of five whales have been taken by hunters, who must be Alaska Natives.
Under this year's federal quota, hunters would have been allowed a total of two hits on adult male whales using harpoons. The hunt would have started in mid-July after most calves have been born and are swimming with their mothers, making it easier for hunters to differentiate between males and females.
With the hunt canceled, residents of Tyonek, an Athabascan Indian village of 200, will need to harvest more salmon, gather more clams and stock up on more store-bought food for the winter. Village council President Peter Merryman, 68, said he has witnessed the thinning of the pods for years and has no problems with holding off for another season.
"We understand what's going on. We know the population is declining so we are trying our best to get it back up again," Merryman said.
The population was declared depleted in 2000 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Scientists can only guess at the reasons for the whales' scarcity, with pollution and local industry being possible factors, Mahoney said.
"Cook Inlet's a busy place. There could be a number of reasons, but none we can directly state as the cause," Mahoney said.