NOAA 99-R159
Contact: Gordon Helm


The National Marine Fisheries Service today announced its decision to propose listing of the Cook Inlet, Alaska, stock of beluga or white whale as "depleted" under the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and is seeking public comment on the proposal. Depletion status would allow NOAA Fisheries to begin a program to rebuild this stock to levels that will support a long-term opportunity for traditional subsistence use by Alaskan Native hunters and Cook Inlet tribes.

"This action is necessary to address the sharp decline in the number of Cook Inlet beluga whales," said Penny Dalton, director of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. "We see a depleted stock listing as a conservation measure to reverse the decline and eventually to rebuild the numbers within the Cook Inlet beluga whale population."

Federal authority to regulate subsistence harvest by Alaska natives requires that the stock be depleted. NOAA Fisheries intends to follow this listing with proposed regulations on native harvest.

The determination that the stock is depleted was based on a comprehensive status review initiated by a NOAA Fisheries finding that the Cook Inlet stock of beluga whales declined approximately 50 percent between 1994 and 1998, falling below its optimum sustainable population. The agency is expected to make a final determination by April 2000, recommending whether additional regulatory action to protect this stock is warranted under the Endangered Species Act.

The status review indicates overharvesting is the primary cause of the observed decline, although many potential impacts may affect this stock. Annual survey results show estimated abundance in 1998 at 347 animals, nearly 50 percent lower than the 1994 estimate of 653 animals. The review process encompassed an examination of
the present status and health of the species, including data on stock size, genetics, migratory patterns and distribution within Cook Inlet, as well as data on the age, stock structure, mortalities (including harvest) and growth.

NOAA Fisheries intends to recover the Cook Inlet beluga whale population by working collaboratively with Alaska Native hunters and Cook Inlet tribes in an attempt to develop cooperative management plans that would establish annual harvest levels based on review of the stock's status and recovery. Opportunity for traditional harvest may be allowed only if that annual take does not result in more than a 10 percent increase in the time necessary to recover the stock. Several native groups are involved with the subsistence use of this stock. These groups have differed on how many beluga whales should be harvested, who should be allowed to harvest the whales, and whether any harvest should occur. Because of this division and the current low population numbers, NOAA Fisheries prohibited any harvest from this stock in 1999 by Alaskan Natives for subsistence purposes.

"We will continue to partner with the Alaska Native organizations to evaluate the health and status of the beluga whale and to develop management plans that ensure the recovery of this stock," said Dalton.

Alaska contains five separate stocks of beluga whale, the smallest of which occurs in Cook Inlet within south-central, the most populated and urbanized region of Alaska. The Cook Inlet stock is genetically and geographically isolated from the other Alaskan populations of beluga whales. The stock can be found in waters including, but not limited to, of Kachemak Bay, Kamishak Bay, Chinitna Bay, and Tuxedni Bay, and in freshwater tributaries to these waters.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is an agency of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, dedicated to protecting and preserving the nation's ocean wildlife through scientific research, fisheries management, habitat conservation and enforcement of federal wildlife law.