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 Vol. 15, No. 2
Serving Indian, Bird, Girdwood, Portage, Whittier, Hope, Cooper Landing & Moose Pass  
January 19, 2012

Annual survey of Cook Inlet belugas finds population decreased to second lowest level

10-year trend reveals average annual decline of 1.1 percent. If the belugas don’t recover, they’re headed for extinction.


Jim Magowan/Turnagain Times

Cook Inlet belugas frequently visit Turnagain Arm in the summer to feed on salmon and hooligan. The Arm can be a treacherous waterway to navigate, sometimes trapping the whales in shallow water, as was the case in the above photo. These belugas were freed by the incoming tide.


Map provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Click to enlarge (PDF 893KB)


The results of an annual survey of Cook Inlet belugas conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last June were released Jan. 9, and they were dismaying. The survey, one of two taken last summer, showed that the population of beluga had declined by 56 whales, decreasing from 340 in 2010 to 284 in 2011.

However, the decrease of 56 whales does not necessarily mean that the whales have died. It could be a discrepancy in the count due to inaccuracies of such factors as weather conditions, beluga behavior or distribution of pods.

“If the population had declined at 20 percent, we would have stranded, dead belugas on beaches, and we only had three this year, so we’re really putting an effort on trending,” said Barbara Mahoney, a biologist with the Protected Resources Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “The whale behavior could result in it being harder to record in the video and, therefore, harder to count, weather aspects as well with glare on the water.”

One ominous fact that stands out in the ten year trend of this unique subspecies of beluga is that the Cook Inlet whales are heading toward extinction.

“At this point, if that trend continues, then it will go extinct,” said Rod Hobbs, the lead scientist for the Cook Inlet beluga project for the National Marine Fisheries Service, a part of NOAA. “The population has to grow or level off at a constant number. A number of 300 is small already, and a risk of catastrophic events may affect the larger or dispersed population. So, yes, we’re concerned.”

The beluga surveys have been conducted NOAA for 18 years through visual counts from an airplane with bubble windows along with video recordings. Many of the same people have been conducting the counts since it began in 1993, said Mahoney, although she was not involved in this survey.

“We have learned that 600 plus animals went down to 360 in 1998, and that was a significant decline, and that is contributed to over harvesting of whales,” said Mahoney.

The drastic decline of beluga led to a petition to list Cook Inlet belugas as in danger of becoming extinct under the Endangered Species Act, she said.

The harvest was regulated in 1999 and in 2005 another petition was submitted and in April of 2007 the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed listing the Cook Inlet belugas as endangered.

“We proposed to list the whales as endangered, and in October 2008, the whales were listed as endangered,” Mahoney said. “Critical habitat was determined in the spring of 2011. We designated critical habitat including Kachemak Bay and areas of Upper Cook Inlet, and the west side of the coast.”

Hobbs started working on the beluga project in 1993 with a specific focus of monitoring the abundance and movement of Cook Inlet belugas. The project also involved studying the whales’ ecology, habitat, what they eat, where they spend the winter and other aspects of their lives.

“From 1994 to 1998, there was a significant subsistence hunt that was going on,” Hobbs said. “And in 1998, we determined it was depleting the population and the hunters chose to stand down and have a moratorium with their hunting, and we began managing the hunt through a co-management agreement with one or two belugas taken per year, but in the last five years no beluga has been hunted.”

Having one unusually low estimate in the June count, Hobbs said, looks as though the low count is consistent with that trend rather than a sudden large decline.

“Our counts are accurate to a degree,” he said. “We fly and make these survey estimates based on data that we collect, but we are also making corrections to animals that were below the surface or missed, or groups that were missing. So any of those factors can affect the numbers in the count, and they can be lower and change from one year to the next. We think the difference can also be affected by the salmon runs they’re feeding on at the time, and the hooligan. The estimate is not a very precise estimate and varies year to year by 10 to 20 percent.”

As was stated in a NOAA Fisheries news release provided on Jan. 9, Hobbs stated that “The real value of this survey is the long-term nature, which helps to determine trends that are valuable for monitoring this population. Year-to-year changes in the population estimates are less important than this long-term trend.”

The trend right now is the decline of the Cook Inlet beluga population of 1.1 percent per year.

The highest estimate for the Cook Inlet beluga population was 1,300 back in 1970. Going back to the 19th century, Hobbs said, there could have been more belugas. Beluga were in Cook Inlet in substantial numbers going back before the arrival of the white man, he said, and were traditionally hunted by Tyonek tribes.

“Currently, there is a recovery team considering the various factors affecting the population recovery of Cook Inlet beluga,” Hobbs said. “Construction projects in Cook Inlet, salmon runs, and the timing of their runs. Monitoring the salmon runs would be helpful, we don’t have good information on salmon runs.”

The hooligan run is also an important food source for Cook Inlet belugas that feed on the smelt like fish each spring around May. Along with salmon, the hooligan is a critical food source for beluga coming out of winter to add blubber to their bodies.

“We don’t know what they feed on in the winter, and building up blubber in the summer feeding on hooligan and salmon are a critical food source,” he said, “and they’ve demonstrated that spending all their time in the summer in the mouths of streams where salmon are intercepted by the beluga.”

As for the drastic depletion of the beluga population, the root cause is still uncertain, although over-hunting is the prevailing assumption.

“We don’t have good records on hunting before 1994,” Hobbs said. “There were 1,300 in 1979 and 650 in 1994, and something was happening during that time, but we don’t have numbers on the hunting, or if the population was declining for other reasons.”

In 1979, beluga migrated as far south as Kalgin Island, a big island southwest of the city of Kenai, and now the beluga only go as far south as the Susitna area, Chickaloon and Turnagain Arm, and Knik Arm.

The marine mammal protection act gives the Alaska natives the right to hunt marine mammals unless the population is considered depleted then a co-management agreement is established.

“In this case, it was a monitoring question because we didn’t really have a good abundance estimate in 1993,” said Hobbs, “and we took the abundance we had then and waited to see if became depleted.”

Cook Inlet beluga juveniles and calves have been surveyed but estimates of their numbers can be difficult to obtain, he said.

The problem scientists found is that the young calves don’t surface at the same rate as the adults. Based on recent counts, it looks like there are good years and bad years for calves.

“We haven’t analyzed the data from August; we did two counts in June and August,” said Hobbs. “From 2006 to 2010, it looks like 2006 was a good year for calves, but other years weren’t. We’re hoping this year was a good year for calves, but we don’t know yet.”

Researchers look at a ratio of calves to adults to determine an index of the calf numbers.

“Ten percent would be great like in 2006,” said Hobbs. “In other years, it was down 1 to 3 percent. I’d say that the current trend can’t continue, something has to change for the population if it is going to recover. Right now it’s declining at a rate of 1 percent per year. It would have to increase at a rate of even 2 percent, that would be great, and they would be recovering instead of continuing to decline. It’s not that big of a difference, just a 3 percent change in their survival rate or reproductive rate.”

As for future research, funding covers work to monitor the beluga population but not the work necessary to identify the mechanisms that are affecting the population, changes in salmon runs or other things like winter forage. “We haven’t been able to research those to the degree we would like to,” said Hobbs.

The 10-year trend of Cook Inlet beluga population numbers are as follows: 2001: 386, 2002: 313, 2003: 357, 2004: 366, 2005: 278, 2006: 302, 2007: 375, 2008: 375, 2009: 321, 2010: 340, 2011: 284.

From 2005 through 2011, the trend is slightly positive (by 4 whales). But in the last year, the drop of beluga numbers by 56 whales indicates an alarming trend. Such a rate of decline would lead to their extinction in five years.

Cook Inlet beluga hunted for sport and subsistence

The beluga population is believed to have been about 1,300 whales throughout the 1970s. Beluga could be observed gathering at an estimated 1,000 or more at the head of Iniskin Bay when flying over the bay in 1980, as this reporter (Jim Magowan) did.

Based on information provided by the National Marine Fisheries Services research papers, the population decline of belugas, approximately 80 percent or 1,000 whales, is often attributed to over-hunting, primarily by Alaska native subsistence hunters between 1980 and 1999. Sport, subsistence and commercial hunting of Cook Inlet beluga, including guided hunts advertised nationally prior to 1972 when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted, does not seem to have affected the overall population.

Mahoney has a great deal of experience in the beluga management program. “Prior to 1964 outside hunters (hunters from outside the Cook Inlet area) sold beluga meat to the native hospital so patients could have traditional food, until the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) prohibited serving these foods in the hospital,” she said.

The ad for guided beluga hunts appeared in a research paper Mahoney and Kim Sheldon wrote in 2000 “Harvest History of Belugas, Delphinapterus leucas, in Cook Inlet, Alaska.” The ad appeared in the July 1, 1965 issue of the Anchorage Times with the headline “Beluga Offer Top Big Game.” The first paragraph of the ad began, “Big Game Hunters: prospect of a new quarry is in the offering. The game is the 10 to 20 foot beluga, or white whale.”

Sport, commercial and subsistence hunting prior to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972 did not appear to have an affect on the beluga population, estimated at 1,300 whales prior to 1972 into the 1980s. The large population decline of beluga began in the period from 1980 to 1999 with the population designated as depleted in 2000.

“After the 1972 MMPA only Alaska natives were allowed to hunt beluga,” said Mahoney. “Northern natives moved to Anchorage and Kenai. The MMPA recognized Alaska natives but not local groups, so all Alaska natives were allowed to hunt beluga.”

Possibly augmented by the population influx from Eskimo villages up north, the whale harvest increased greatly in the late ‘80s through the ‘90s. In their research paper, Mahoney and Sheldon recorded three to seven known beluga kills from 1979 to 1987. In 1987, the recorded kill was eight. From that time on, the known kill climbed to a high of 60 and 14 struck but lost in 1995 (up to 60 reported in 1995) according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data included in the Mahoney and Sheldon paper.

Data further shows that the reported kills dropped from 60 in 1995 to 21 in 1998 with struck and lost numbers increasing to 49-98 in 1996 and declining to 21 in 1998. The report notes “Alaska Natives propose a moratorium on Cook Inlet beluga hunting and suspend the 1999 hunt.”

Mahoney wrote in the paper that “The heavy harvest of beluga also coincided with the economic and population boom in Alaska and with vastly more effective harvest methods.”

Mahoney and Sheldon state in their paper that the native population in the Cook Inlet area, primarily Anchorage, increased from about 9,000 in 1980 to over 20,000 in 1988. Prosperity also increased travel to and from the villages, all of which gave subsistence hunters greater access to Cook Inlet beluga.

The economic and population growth is also claimed to have increased noise and pollution in Cook Inlet. Wildlife conservation groups, in online publications, claim that increased pollution and noise from increased traffic in Cook Inlet may be a factor in the beluga decline. There is not much published research data on the impact of increased noise or pollution on beluga.

After natives declared a moratorium on beluga hunting in 1999 because they were concerned about the population decline, federal laws and agreements with native groups suspended legal hunting of beluga until their 5-year population average reaches 350. The first 5-year period ends in 2013. The average for 2009-2011 is 315. The counts for 2012 and 2013 will have to average 402.5 to meet the 350 5-year average requirement; therefore, it’s likely the moratorium on taking beluga will be in effect for at least another 5 years.

The beluga population growth anticipated by NMFS, resulting from halting hunting has not materialized. No one knows why.

Alaska Fisheries Science Center (a part of NOAA) Director Doug DeMaster was quoted in the NOAA press release that “Only three dead belugas were reported this year, which indicates that large numbers of mortalities did not occur in 2011. While NOAA remains concerned that this population is not showing signs of recovery, at this time, we do not believe this estimate represents a marked decrease in the population.”

The three dead beluga in 2011 represent a low mark for dead whales. The ten year average is 9.8 according to NOAA.

The NOAA release states, “Estimates can vary from year to year based on more than simply the beluga population itself.”

NOAA believes there is a downward trend, but does not feel the survey represents a “marked decrease in the population.”

For the 11 years shown in the NOAA announcement, the count has been 340 or more six times, over 300 whales nine times, and below 300 twice.

Right now, the answer to the question “What is happening to the beluga whale population?” is that scientists and biologists don’t really know; however, they try to remain positive, and recent sightings of calves during a beluga calves survey conducted last August, provided some optimism.

“We’re encouraged by the fact that they’re still having calves,” Mahoney said, “and we’re seeing babies and juveniles in the groups, and we don’t see high mortalities with any specific age class. So I’m encouraged, but we’ll keep watching and keep counting.”


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