Legislature(1999 - 2000)

03/22/1999 03:20 PM RES

Audio Topic
* first hearing in first committee of referral
+ teleconferenced
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
              SJR 17-COOK INLET BELUGA POPULATION                                                                               
CHAIRMAN HALFORD called the Senate Resources Committee meeting to                                                               
order at 3:20 p.m. and announced SJR 17 to be up for consideration.                                                             
SENATOR TAYLOR moved to adopt the Committee Substitute, dated                                                                   
3/19/99, Utermohle.  There were no objections and it was so                                                                     
MR. RON SOMERVILLE, Resources Consultant to the House and Senate                                                                
Majority, says it's pretty obvious that the National Marine                                                                     
Fisheries Service and other groups have felt that the Beluga whale                                                              
in Cook Inlet has been under pressure for some time and what is                                                                 
causing the decline is speculative at this point.  By and large the                                                             
trend has been down and the harvest has gone up.  In 1994, the                                                                  
Beluga population was estimated to be about 650 and it's now about                                                              
less than 350.                                                                                                                  
CHAIRMAN HALFORD asked what the accuracy was on the harvest data.                                                               
MR. SOMERVILLE answered that the harvest data was provided by the                                                               
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and all of the harvest is                                                              
taken by native Alaskans.  NMFS cannot regulate the taking by                                                                   
natives on any of the species unless there is some wasteful taking                                                              
or if the species is depleted.  Working with local hunters and                                                                  
shops in Anchorage, one in particular that sells beluga meat, they                                                              
have been able to estimate the take.  He also worked with the local                                                             
Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council.                                                                                               
In the last five years they have estimated that somewhere between                                                               
70 - 100 animals have been taken per year.                                                                                      
CHAIRMAN HALFORD asked about strikes versus taking.                                                                             
MR. SOMERVILLE replied that "strike" information is not very                                                                    
accurate, but a 1996 Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council estimated                                                                 
hunters landed 49 whales and estimated a total mortality of about                                                               
147 whales from hunters alone.  NMFS and ADF&G didn't think that                                                                
mortality is that great for most years.                                                                                         
CHAIRMAN HALFORD asked how the whales are taken.                                                                                
MR. SOMERVILLE replied that they are harpooned and some are shot                                                                
before they are harpooned.  He said that proposed regulations from                                                              
NMFS probably will require that harpooning occur first to improve                                                               
the wounding losses.  The main thing he wanted to stress is that                                                                
there was a petition from a number of organizations to list beluga                                                              
on the Endangered Species Act and if there's anything we want to                                                                
avoid it's that listing.  This resolution asks NMFS to speed up the                                                             
process of the status review to determine exactly what the                                                                      
population of the Cook Inlet beluga whales is and asks congress to                                                              
appropriate money for this project.  It also asks for a                                                                         
congressional "fix" from the Marine Mammal Protection Act allowing                                                              
NMFS to regulate and enforce.                                                                                                   
He said there has been an agreement worked out between the local                                                                
council representing most of the tribes in Cook Inlet and the                                                                   
National Marine Fisheries Service on some sort of plan.  A proposed                                                             
amendment they are working on with Senator Stevens, which has been                                                              
added to the supplemental appropriation, will make it illegal to                                                                
take beluga in Cook Inlet unless it's under a regulated regime.                                                                 
MR. JOEL BLATCHFORD supported SJR 17, but added that he has                                                                     
witnessed commercial fishermen shooting beluga whales and he                                                                    
personally had sunk four of them since 1955.  He explained when a                                                               
beluga gets old, their livers hold a lot of pollutants.  So when                                                                
they go into their winter season and their fat gets thin, the                                                                   
livers put out a lot of toxic waste.  They start breaking out with                                                              
tumors and are just too sick to eat.  Their whole skin changes                                                                  
colors. When they are young, they are very clean.  He noted that                                                                
EPA has allowed discharging in coastal waters.                                                                                  
MR. BLATCHFORD also informed the committee that the grey whales                                                                 
from California get very hungry on their migrations because they                                                                
keep getting pushed away from their source of food by people other                                                              
than hunters.                                                                                                                   
Number 180                                                                                                                      
MR. DANIEL ALEX, Project Coordinator for Cook Inlet Marine Mammal                                                               
Council, along with the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee asked for the                                                             
emergency amendment of MMPA which has been introduced as a rider on                                                             
an appropriation bill by Senator Stevens.  They have also asked for                                                             
funding for co-management.  They are concluding an interim co-                                                                  
management agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service by                                                              
April 1.  They have recently reached a consensus that Cook Inlet                                                                
Marine Mammal Council is the negotiating entity and have worked out                                                             
some of the major points for an interim co-management agreement.                                                                
They have a set of conservation measures proposed by hunters that                                                               
are in the proposed interim draft co-management agreement.                                                                      
MR. CARL JACK said he provides staff support to the Indigenous                                                                  
People's Council for Marine Mammals, a coalition of 14 native                                                                   
marine mammal councils that function in the State of Alaska.  They                                                              
support SJR 17, but request on line 17 insert language supporting                                                               
Senator Stevens amendment #87 which was made on March 18, 1999.  It                                                             
would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to put a moratorium on                                                             
the taking of belugas in Cook Inlet unless it's done through the                                                                
co-management regime that Mr. Alex talked about.                                                                                
CHAIRMAN HALFORD informed Mr. Jack that the committee substitute                                                                
more directly supports the Stevens language.                                                                                    
Number 139                                                                                                                      
MS. DELICE CALCOTE, Secretary, Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council,                                                                
supported SJR 17.  However, she didn't think it was fair to blame                                                               
the hunters on the numbers dwindling.  NMFS data shows that they                                                                
have only looked at tracer elements of biopollution in belugas and                                                              
they have only looked at a few samples. Their hunters have been                                                                 
cutting up and sinking all of the belugas that are diseased with                                                                
pus pockets.  All samples that NMFS samples have been taken from                                                                
marketable beluga.  Fishermen have not provided any kind of bad                                                                 
samples to the NMFS.  This is why the Cook Inlet belugas are the                                                                
healthiest in the whole world.  She asked for much more research                                                                
and noted the problems that come from pollution, including metals,                                                              
that come from the 230  plus operating wells in the Inlet.  There                                                               
are tankers that come up and dump their ballast treatment waters in                                                             
the Kenai area.  Plants in the Kenai are producing toxins that                                                                  
could be getting into the water source.  She also said the tourist                                                              
industry will bring further stresses on the area.                                                                               
MS. CALCOTE suggested establishing a five-mile no bothering zone                                                                
around fishing and birthing areas much like the Canadians have just                                                             
adopted on their beluga grounds.  One day when she was fishing, she                                                             
heard on the radio a man announce that he was shooting at belugas                                                               
because they were bothering his nets.  So the commercial fishing                                                                
industry is not necessarily policing themselves as they say they                                                                
She said there is sewage coming from Anchorage, Kenai, Ninilchik,                                                               
Homer, and Elmendorf and Fort Richardson.  According to EPA, there                                                              
are billions of tons of toxins produced by the oil and gas industry                                                             
per year that are being pumped into the Inlet.  All of those                                                                    
pollutants settle into the mud.  The beluga shrug out of their skin                                                             
every year and they use the mud to take off their old skin.  She                                                                
asked if there would be dredging in the area where the beluga are                                                               
known for their feeding and birthing areas.  She repeated that                                                                  
protection for feeding and birthing zones needed to be established.                                                             
There is a potential for gold mines coming in and she wanted the                                                                
gold production runoff to be monitored.  The beluga like to stay at                                                             
the mouths of the streams for their food source.  The Johnson River                                                             
and the Beluga River are known beluga feeding areas, but she                                                                    
concluded saying that the whole area needed to be looked at and not                                                             
just one small piece at a time.                                                                                                 
Number 310                                                                                                                      
MR. JEV LANMAN, Chickaloon Village, said he is a member of the Cook                                                             
Inlet Marine Mammal Council and representative of the Cook Inlet                                                                
Treaty Tribes.  He supported SJR 17 saying that his views have been                                                             
voiced already.  He said that getting accurate information about                                                                
the numbers needed to have attention.  Hunters don't have total                                                                 
control over this limited resource.  The number of whales that are                                                              
struck and destroyed because of pollution hasn't been recorded and                                                              
it's not reflected in the scientific reports people are receiving                                                               
today.  He noted interference from tourist boats, oil wells, and                                                                
many other industries are impacting what's going on.                                                                            
MR. LANKAN said that toxins in belugas have recently been evidenced                                                             
by the yellow tumors and radioactive content.  It has reached a                                                                 
state where you are taking a big risk if you eat the meat without                                                               
having it tested first.                                                                                                         
SENATOR TAYLOR asked if the Council has records of how many belugas                                                             
are being taken and being shot.                                                                                                 
MR. LANMAN answered that the numbers vary from hunter to hunter and                                                             
locations.  He said they have totals, but they are not good numbers                                                             
which is why he is testifying on behalf of this bill.                                                                           
CHAIRMAN HALFORD said one question has come up and they know the                                                                
harvest has increased substantially, but they don't know that is                                                                
the only reason or even a major reason for the decline.  The way                                                                
the resolution is drafted it says, "primarily due to overharvest".                                                              
It also says, "appears to have declined".  It might be more neutral                                                             
to say "appears to have declined in recent years while harvest                                                                  
levels have increased significantly".  Both of those things are                                                                 
SENATOR TAYLOR moved to adopt that language.  There were no                                                                     
objections and the amendment was adopted.                                                                                       
SENATOR TAYLOR asked what the feds have said is the base line                                                                   
population of belugas in Cook Inlet.  He asked how long they had                                                                
been managing them.                                                                                                             
CHAIRMAN HALFORD answered they had been managing them since 1972.                                                               
MR. SOMERVILLE inserted after the Marine Mammal Protection Act was                                                              
last amended it was required that NMFS U.S. Fish and Wildlife                                                                   
Service do population assessment and establish base line population                                                             
levels for all the species they are responsible for. For belugas in                                                             
Cook Inlet, their number was around 750 - 800, but it was                                                                       
established in those days as an off the top guess based upon                                                                    
surveys incidental to other work the State was doing in Cook Inlet                                                              
as well as the University of Alaska.                                                                                            
SENATOR TAYLOR asked if that wasn't the same thing we are working                                                               
with today.                                                                                                                     
MR. SOMERVILLE repeated that the data is skimpy at best, but the                                                                
problem is under the Endangered Species Act the courts look at the                                                              
"best available information."  Many species like the wolf and                                                                   
goshawk can be listed on very skimpy information.                                                                               
SENATOR MACKIE moved to pass CSSJR 17(RES) from committee with                                                                  
individual recommendations.  There were no objections and it was so                                                             

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