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Document Type

Comment

Abstract

In 1998, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) became concerned about the status of the beluga whale in Cook Inlet, Alaska. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) data indicated that the estimated population of beluga whales in the Cook Inlet region had been declining since 1994. Results from annual surveys in 1998 revealed that the estimated beluga whale population was nearly fifty per-cent lower than 1994 estimates. At the beluga whale's current fifteen percent rate of decline per year, "the Cook Inlet beluga whale stock would be reduced to fifty percent of its current level within five years. This level of removal is significant." The primary source of the decline was determined to be the subsistence harvest conducted by Alaskan Natives. After a comprehensive review of the Cook Inlet beluga whale's status, NMFS proposed that the beluga whale be designated as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Once the beluga whale was designated as depleted, Alaskan Natives, represented by the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council (CIMMC), could not harvest another whale without first entering into a cooperative agreement with NMFS. In addition to the co-management agreement, NMFS prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) and a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) so that management of the beluga whale could be conducted with the Alaskan Native Organizations (ANOs) beyond the year of the co-management agreement. Despite NMFS's actions to reduce the depletion of the beluga whale, there were environmental groups that believed NMFS did not go far enough. These groups sued to have the species declared as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). An ESA listing would require more stringent regulations than a "depleted" listing under the MMPA. The groups' concerns raised some critical questions: did NMFS obtain enough information to correctly determined that the primary cause of the beluga whale's population decline was the subsistence hunting alone, making an ESA determination unwarranted; was the NMFS decision arbitrary and capricious because it failed to consider future impacts; and, is the subsistence hunt so important to the ANOs that they should be allowed to continue to hunt a depleted species? This Comment evaluates the politics and implications of NMFS's decision to designate the beluga whale as depleted under the MMPA. First, this Comment explores the applicable laws concerning marine mammals, most particularly the MMPA and the ESA. Second, it will examine the history of the beluga whale, its role in the Alaskan Native hunt, and its declining numbers over the years. Third, in addition to studying Cook Inlet Beluga Whale v. Daley, this Comment will look in depth at NMFS's response to accusations that it was not aggressive enough in considering to list the beluga whale as endangered under the ESA. NMFS's consider- ations of other factors that may have caused the beluga whale's decline are examined to determine why the beluga was designated as "depleted" rather than "endangered" or "threatened." Fourth, and finally, the importance of subsistence harvesting, and the restrictions on that harvest by Alaskan Natives are explored. After weighing the considerations on each side of the issue, this Comment concludes that NMFS took the appropriate action under the prevailing circumstances, and that NMFS's restriction on the ANOs' harvest was put in place after a careful weighing of the need for the beluga whale population to increase while also trying to preserve Alaskan Natives' historical tradition.

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