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ANCHORAGE -- Everyone agrees that it would be a terrible loss if beluga whales no longer swam the waters of Cook Inlet.
The dispute comes in how to save the white whales.
The National Marine Fisheries Service decided Thursday not to place the inlet's belugas on the endangered species list. The agency instead opted to continue to designate the belugas as ``depleted'' under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Since the depletion was caused by overharvesting, the agency said the problem could be remedied without resorting to the Endangered Species Act.
A law firm representing six environmental groups that pushed for the listing said it will amend an already-existing lawsuit it has against the agency in federal court in Washington, D.C., said Jack Sterne, attorney for the Trustees for Alaska.
``Essentially what they are proposing is to conduct an experiment on a very vulnerable population and we don't think the Endangered Species Act allows them to do it,'' he said.
Overharvesting has been blamed for driving down the number of beluga whales in the inlet from about 1,000 a decade ago to about 350 now. Before Congress mandated a ban last year, Alaska Natives killed about 70 whales a year.
Congress said the ban would remain in place until the fisheries service and Native groups worked out a co-management plan.
The two sides reached an agreement this month that will allow hunters from the village of Tyonek on the inlet's west side to take one strike at a whale this summer, said Dan Alex, project coordinator for the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council, a coalition of tribal governments.
A strike as defined in the agreement is a hit with a harpoon, lance or bullet. Subsequent strikes on the same whale won't be counted.
The decision to severely curtail beluga hunting threatens a Native tradition, Alex said.
``They had us over a barrel,'' he said. ``Basically, we had to do what they wanted us to do.''
Fisheries service biologist Brad Smith said the agency was ``between a rock and a hard place'' in setting the one-strike limit.
``There just wasn't enough (whales) to go around,'' he said.
Even with a complete ban on hunting, it will take 20 years to bring the inlet's beluga population to a healthy level of 780 whales, Smith said. Allowing the taking of one or two whales a year will extend that to 23 to 25 years.
While Smith said he expects the restrictions to stay in place ``for the foreseeable future,'' the agreement expires on Oct. 1. Both sides are working on a long-term management plan.
This year's aerial survey showed the number of inlet belugas to be about the same as the last two years, said Dave Rugh, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.
Fewer than 200 belugas were spotted during the survey conducted the second week of June. Once video camera images are scrutinized for missed whales and the number of whales beneath the water's surface is factored in, the number should be in the 350 range.
The sharp decline is particularly alarming because the inlet whales are genetically distinct from Alaska's other belugas that swim the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas, Rugh said. The inlet belugas' DNA suggests they don't mix with other belugas.
``The Cook Inlet group stands apart,'' Rugh said.
A pro-development group said environmental groups actually were hoping to slow down development in Cook Inlet. If the whales had been put on the endangered species list, federal law would have required a review of any activity, including shipping and oil and gas exploration, that could impact the whales, said Ken Freeman, executive director of the Anchorage-based Resource Development Council.
``We see some in the environmental community using the endangered species designation to obstruct development,'' he said.
Sterne said environmental groups were outgunned by powerful people and big money, including lawmakers and the oil industry.
``We're not giving up,'' he said. ``When a population gets this low, it is de facto endangered. Any number of things could push them over the edge.''