Hearings on Inlet belugas start Feb. 3

Federal officials have scheduled four public hearings between Feb. 3 and Feb. 12 in Southcentral communities on the proposed designation of more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for beluga whales. All will take place between 6 and 9 p.m.

Scientists estimate that about 1,300 belugas lived in Cook Inlet in 1979, but the numbers dropped sharply during the 1990s and by 1998, their population was put at about 350.

The plunge was largely attributed to subsistence hunting, but hunters curtailed their harvest to one or two animals a year starting in the late 1990s, and biologists expected the population to rebound. That hasn't happened; last year's estimate was about 320.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listed Cook Inlet belugas as endangered in 2008. The proposed critical habitat areas identified on Dec. 1, 2009, would comprise all of upper Cook Inlet, the coastal areas of western Cook Inlet and most of Kachemak Bay.

Here is the hearing schedule:

• Soldotna, Feb. 3, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly Chambers.

• Homer, Feb. 4, Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitors Center.

• Wasilla, Feb. 11, Best Western Lake Lucille Inn, Iditarod Room.

• Anchorage, Feb. 12, Loussac Library, Wilda Marston Theater.

For more information, go to www.alaskafisheries.noaa.gov.

Anchorage Daily News / adn.com