Legislature(1999 - 2000)
03/22/1999 03:20 PM RES
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= 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 ordered. 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 are. 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 true. 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 ordered.