Unauthorized Take

In certain instances, NMFS may authorize or permit directed or incidental “takes” of CI belugas under the MMPA and ESA. “Directed take” occurs when an activity is intentionally harassing or harming the animals, such as occurs when conducting research on those animals; “incidental take” occurs when an activity results in harassment or harm to animals that were not the intended target of an activity, such as may occur when a construction activity introduces loud noises into the water. As part of ESA section 7 consultations, NMFS reviews and considers the effects of these types of requested takes on CI belugas to ensure authorization of these takes are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of CI belugas or result in adverse modification of their critical habitat. In recent years, due to the precarious nature of the CI beluga population, no lethal takes have been authorized. NMFS has authorized a limited number of directed research projects, but the majority of the take authorizations have been for incidental take that would result in harassment only. Given that extensive reviews of the proposed activities’ effects to CI belugas are conducted prior to issuing take authorizations, these authorized takes are not considered to be a threat to CI belugas.

Activities which result in harassment or harm to CI belugas but which NMFS has not authorized (i.e., unauthorized take) may result in changes in CI beluga behavior, displacement of CI belugas from important areas, or injury or mortality to CI belugas. Some activities with potential to result in unauthorized take or trauma include entanglements from fisheries operations, strikes from vessel activities, unanticipated mortalities or harassment associated with research projects, mortalities or injuries from poaching and intentional harassment, and other adverse outcomes (e.g., displacement) associated with miscellaneous activities such whale watching.

Sources of Unauthorized Take

Entanglements: Prior to the mid-1980s, the only reports of fatal takes of belugas incidental to fishing activities in Cook Inlet are from the literature (Murray and Fay 1979; Burns and Seaman 1986). While there have been sporadic reports since the mid-1980s of single beluga becoming entangled in fishing nets, the only known mortality associated with entanglement in a fishing net was the young CI beluga carcass recovered from a subsistence set net in 2012. Overall, the current rate of direct mortality from fisheries in Cook Inlet appears to be insignificant. There have been reports of non-lethal entanglement of CI belugas. For example, in 2005, a CI beluga entangled in an unknown object, perhaps a tire rim or a culvert liner, was photographed in Eagle Bay (McGuire et al. 2013), and another CI beluga was repeatedly photographed 2010–2013 with what appeared to be a rope entangled around the upper portion of its body near the pectoral flippers (McGuire et al. 2014a, 2014b). It is not known if these animals were able to disentangle themselves or if they died as a result of the entanglements.

Strikes: Most of Cook Inlet is navigable and used by various classes of water craft that pose the threat of striking belugas. Presently, there are no restrictions on vessel speed limits, areas in which vessels may operate, or on the type or horsepower of vessels allowed in the upper Inlet. There is compelling evidence that reduced vessel speed decreases the probability of vessel collision with large whales, such as the North Atlantic right whale (e.g., Laist et al. 2014). However, smaller boats that travel at high speed and change direction frequently may present a greater strike threat for CI belugas. NMFS researchers have witnessed avoidance and overt behavioral reactions by CI belugas when approached by small vessels (e.g., Lerczak et al. 2000). While ship strikes have not been a confirmed source of CI beluga mortality, a CI beluga washed ashore dead in September 2007 with “wide, blunt trauma along the right side of the thorax” that could be the result of ship strike trauma. In October 2012, a necropsy of another CI beluga carcass indicated the most likely cause of death was “blunt trauma such as would occur with a strike with the hull of the boat” (NMFS AKR, unpub. data). Scarring consistent with propeller injuries has also been documented among CI belugas (Burek 1999; LGL 2009; McGuire et al. 2011). Further scar analysis would be required to estimate vessel size, and it would be difficult to determine whether the scars resulted from commercial, private, or research vessel interactions.

Research: Research activities conducted in Cook Inlet have the potential to take CI belugas. Research activities not targeting belugas, such as research activities studying CI beluga prey or habitat, may incidentally harass CI belugas. If these research projects are not authorized by NMFS, and harass or harm CI belugas, these are unauthorized takes. Directed CI beluga research activities also have the potential to harass or harm CI belugas. NMFS has authorized take associated with several CI beluga research projects over the years. Such activities have included captures, tagging activities, biopsy activities, and aerial and boat-based activities. While certain invasive and non-invasive research activities targeting CI belugas are authorized by NMFS, none of the authorizations since the ESA-listing have allowed for mortality. Since 2003, the only research effort involving contact with the whales was an effort to apply acoustic recorders to the whales via suction cup tags. The limited amount of invasive research efforts in recent years is due in part to the probability that three CI belugas died (an unanticipated outcome) as a result of a capture and satellite tagging research project in 2002. Photo-identification studies have identified and tracked seven individual belugas with scars attributable to the satellite tags; five of these whales were re-sighted in 2011 providing evidence that at least five whales survived a minimum of nine years after tagging (McGuire et al. 2013). With the exception of the suction cup acoustic recorders and a biopsy feasibility project in 2016, which collected six small tissue samples from CI belugas, all research activities on CI belugas since 2003 have involved non- invasive techniques (e.g., passive acoustic recordings; aerial, boat, and land-based observations; photographic studies) with a low potential to adversely affect CI belugas.

Poaching or intentional harassment: Cook Inlet is bordered by the densest human population in Alaska. This juxtaposition of people and belugas in and near coastal waters heightens the potential for illegal hunting, poaching, or intentional harassment (e.g., chasing whales with vessels). Much of the information on illegal harassment is based on data from beach-cast carcasses and anecdotal reports, which may underestimate illegal harassment due to lack of timely access to carcasses. Photographs of scars present on living CI belugas suggest that some injuries may be the result of illegal hunting (McGuire et al. 2011). However, there have been no reported fresh wounds or mortalities of CI belugas associated with firearms since the harvest was regulated in 1999; NMFS has documentation of only two potential gunshot victims (one in 1995 and one in 1998; NMFS AKR, unpub. data). Some scars have been speculated to be healed bullet wounds or possible harpoon marks (McGuire et al. 2011), however, photo- identification studies since 2005 have not documented fresh injuries suspected to be the result of illegal hunting or harassment (T. McGuire, pers. comm., LGL, unpub. data). There is little information available to suggest illegal hunting or harassment is currently occurring, perhaps in part due to increased awareness of the status of CI belugas and the prohibitions against hunting, shooting, or harassing the whales. The NOAA Office of Law Enforcement patrols Cook Inlet and investigates any reports of illegal hunting or harassment of CI belugas. As of September 2016, no poaching incidents have been confirmed, and there has been one civil conviction of harassment.

Other: Other activities also have the potential to take CI belugas. For instance, although there is currently no commercial whale watching industry for CI belugas, there are numerous small planes, boats, and other small watercraft (e.g., jet skis, kayaks, and wind and kite surfboards) in the Cook Inlet area which have been observed approaching CI belugas for closer viewing. These close approaches can result in CI belugas changing their behavior or leaving an important area in
an effort to escape the harassment caused by the close approaches.

Relative Concern

Unauthorized takes (i.e., those without NMFS authorization) have the potential to harass, disturb, displace, injure, or kill CI belugas. The activities of greatest concern to the recovery potential of CI belugas are those with the potential to injure or kill a CI beluga. Activities with the potential to result in unauthorized takes can be found rangewide in Cook Inlet, with certain localized hotspots. These activities are primarily seasonal, but given demographic and economic trends, the number of these activities in Cook Inlet is likely increasing in frequency. However, an increase in activities that could result in unauthorized take may not be a reliable indicator of an increase in unauthorized takes. The frequency of occurrence of unauthorized takes is unknown. There is a medium probability that unauthorized take will occur in the future, but the magnitude of the impact to CI belugas is likely to be variable. If the effect is displacement or a short-term change in behavior, the magnitude of the threat on CI belugas is low, but if the effect is a mortality, then the magnitude is high. However, there is little information to definitively conclude mortalities are associated with unauthorized takes. More information is available to suggest injuries may be a notable concern, but photographic data of healed scars suggest some injuries are not life threatening. Therefore, the overall relative concern of the impact of unauthorized takes is considered to be medium.