Some positive news for belugas

13th April 1999

Whalers split off
Hunters balk at fed deal

Daily News reporter

The first legal hurdle toward listing Cook Inlet beluga whales as an endangered species has been crossed in record time, just as the effort to avoid the listing by setting up a federal-tribal co-management plan for belugas suffered a setback.

A group of Native hunters who felt squeezed out of talks between tribal and federal officials over a hunting management plan have formed their own group in protest and plan to seek official recognition.

"We've got about 15, and there will be more," said Joel Blatchford, a former Inlet whale hunter leading the splinter group. "We're doing this because us hunters don't feel we have true representation."

The new group calls itself the Alaska Native Marine Mammal Hunter Committee. Blatchford sent notice to the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council on Monday about the new group.

CIMMC project coordinator Dan Alex said he was not surprised.

"Joel was trying to spirit away the hunters all along," Alex said. "The worst thing that could happen is that this could create enough chaos where there will be no regulation on hunting this year," Alex said. "If he achieves that chaos, there will be a subsequent complete (hunting) moratorium that will irk people who need subsistence food."

Barbara Mahoney of the National Marine Fisheries Service said her office was notified of the split late Monday. "It's too early to say what it means," she said.

Co-management is seen by many as a way to keep the whales off the endangered species list. CIMMC and federal biologists have worked to devise an interim co-management plan by early May before the start of the hunting season.

Last week, federal and tribal officials said they had drafted a two-year plan, but would not say what it was. That prompted some of the hunters, including Blatchford, and environmentalists to complain that they had been locked out.

The beluga population, estimated at about 350, has declined by almost 50 percent since 1994, according to federal biologists. Federal scientists warn that current subsistence and commercial-hunting levels - 78 whales killed last year - could drive the Inlet belugas into extinction in a decade.

In late January, the state petitioned NMFS to list the Inlet belugas as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A few days later, Blatchford and several environmental groups petitioned to have Inlet belugas listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The requests triggered a 90-day period for NMFS to respond.

NMFS published a notice in the Federal Register on Friday announcing that the listing "may be warranted," which is the first legal hurdle before action can be taken, explained Jack Sterne, an attorney with Trustees for Alaska.

"The speed indicates NMFS recognizes there is a serious and significant problem here," said Sterne, whose law firm is pushing for an emergency listing.