Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)
Photo: NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory
Beluga Whale Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)
Cook Inlet Beluga Whale DPS Critical Habitat
(Cook Inlet, AK)
(click for larger view PDF)
Did You Know?
- Belugas are known as the "canaries of the sea" because of the vast range of sounds they produce.
- The name beluga comes from the Russian word "bielo" for white.
- Belugas have flexible necks, allowing them to move their heads separate from their bodies.
The Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight
- Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Spotlight Species 5-Year Action Plan
- Alaska Regional Office Cook Inlet beluga whale management and recovery
- Draft Recovery Plan for Cook Inlet Beluga Whale
- Other NOAA Fisheries Species in the Spotlight
|average 3,150 lbs (1,430 kg)
Adult females average up to 2,998 Ibs (1360 kg); adult males average up to 3307 Ibs
(1500 kg). At birth, Alaska beluga calves have been reported to average 159 Ibs (72 kg).
|average 13 feet (4 m), but may reach 16 feet (5 m)
Adult females average 11.6 feet (3.55 m); adult males average 13.6 ft (4.15 m). At birth,
Alaska beluga calves have been reported to average 4.9 ft (1.5 m).
|Born very dark grey or brownish-grey, belugas gradually lighten up to white as they mature. Instead of a dorsal fin, belugas have a tough dorsal ridge. They have a very bulbous, flexible melon on their forehead they use to produce and focus sound..|
|35-50 years, or using the one growth layer group (teeth) per year theory 60-70 years|
|opportunistic feeders, belugas eat invertebrates such as octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, mussels, snails, sandworms, and a variety of fishes including salmon, eulachon, cod, and, flounder.|
|extremely social animals that typically migrate, hunt, and interact together in groups or single; known as the "canaries of the sea," because they produce a vast repertoire of sounds including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks . Cook Inlet beluga whales do not migrate, instead they remain in Cook Inlet year-round.|
The beluga whale is a small, white-toothed whale. Adult belugas may reach a length of 16 feet (5 m), though average size is 12-14 feet (about 4 m). Males may weigh about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) and females 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg). Beluga whales lack a dorsal fin and do not typically produce a visible "blow" when breathing at the surface.
Unlike other cetaceans, belugas can move their head up, down, and side to side, because their cervical vertebrae are not fused. This feature appears to be an adaptation to maneuvering and catching prey in muddy or ice-covered areas.
Beluga whales are covered with a thick layer of blubber that accounts for as much as 40 percent of their body mass. This fat provides thermal protection and stores energy. Belugas are unique among cetaceans in that they shed their outer layer of skin, or molt, each summer around July. They concentrate in shallow water where there is coarse gravel to rub against. The rubbing action helps remove the top layer of old yellow skin and reveal the new skin underneath. However, there is no evidence that Cook Inlet beluga whales go through a molt.
Beluga whales mate in the spring, usually in March or April, in small bays and estuaries. Gestation lasts about 14-15 months, and calves are born between March and September, mostly between May and July. Females give birth to single calves every two to three years on average. We do not have precise information on mating of Cook Inlet belugas, estimating that mating occurs between late winter and early spring with calves appearing in mid-July based on surveys and April - August based on Native hunter traditional knowledge.
Belugas give birth where the water is relatively warm, as newborn calves lack a thick blubber layer and benefit from the warmer water temperatures of shallow tidal flats and estuaries. Beluga calves nurse for at least 12 to 18 months, until their teeth emerge, at which point they supplement their diets with shrimp and small fishes. Most calves continue to nurse for another year after beginning to eat solid food. Female belugas are old enough to reproduce at around 4 to 7 years of age and males around 7 to 9 years. Their lifespan is thought to be about 35-50 years, however using the one growth layer group per year (on teeth) theory Cook Inlet belugas may live 60-70 years.
Belugas are extremely social animals that typically migrate, hunt, and interact together in groups of 10 to several hundred. They are known as the "canaries of the sea," because they produce a vast repertoire of sounds including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks. They have a well-developed sense of hearing and echolocation, and are reported to have acute vision both in and out of water.
Belugas are opportunistic feeders, eating octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, mussels, snails, sandworms, and fishes, including eulachon, salmon, capelin, cod, herring, smelt, flounder, sole, sculpin, lamprey, and lingcod.
NMFS proposed to designate critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whale DPS on December 2,2009 (74 FR 63080); two areas were proposed, consisting of 7,809 square km (3,016 square miles) of marine habitat. On April 11,2011, NMFS published the final rule designating the two areas (minus and exclusion zone) of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the Cook Inlet beluga whales (76 FR 20180; 50 CFR part 226.220).
Beluga whales are circumpolar in distribution. Beluga whales inhabit the Arctic and subarctic regions of
- North America
Specifically, they inhabit the Arctic Ocean and its adjoining seas, including the
- Sea of Okhotsk
- Bering Sea
- Cook Inlet portion of the Gulf of Alaska
- Gulf of Alaska
- Beaufort Sea
- Baffin Bay
- Hudson Bay
- Gulf of St. Lawrence
During certain times of the year, belugas may also be found in large rivers, such as the Yukon, as they seem to be unaffected by salinity changes.Population size estimates from the most recent Stock Assessment Reports are available on our website.
For Cook Inlet belugas, potential threats identified in the draft recovery plan include:
- threats of high concern: catastrophic events (e.g., natural disasters; spills; mass strandings); cumulative and synergistic effects of multiple stressors; and noise.
- threats of medium concern: disease agents (e.g., pathogens, parasites, and harmful algal blooms); habitat loss or degradation; reduction is prey; and unauthorized take.
- threats of low concern: subsistence hunting; pollution; and predation.
Historical threats for belugas include
- harvest, for food and skin/leather
- Belugas are the only cetacean with skin thick enough to be used as leather when tanned
- legal subsistence harvest in the Cook Inlet
- Reported subsistence harvests of Cook Inlet beluga whales between 1994 and 1998 can account for the 14 percent annual rate of decline in the population during that time period.
- The known annual subsistence harvest by Alaska Natives during 1995-1998 averaged 77 beluga whales per year. This level of harvest was unsustainable, and the drastic population decline from 1994-1998, prompted the "depleted" designation under the MMPA.
- Between 1999 and 2015, only five Cook Inlet beluga whales have been taken through a subsistence harvest.
The other 4 Alaskan stocks have levels of subsistence harvest that do not threaten their survival
In 2008 we published a Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whales [pdf] that details many proposed and current conservation actions. The plan sets a goal of a minimum population of 780 animals before we would no longer consider the Cook Inlet stock depleted under the MMPA. Achievement of this goal is expected to take until at least 2038. Management of the Alaska Native subsistence hunts in Cook Inlet occurred through a Cooperative Agreement between NMFS and the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council. (Note: CIMMC was disbanded by unanimous vote of the then CIMMC member Tribes' representatives on 6/20/2012.)
On May 15th, 2015 we published a draft recovery plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whales under the ESA. The ultimate goal of the recovery plan is to guide efforts to recover Cook Inlet beluga whales by meeting the criteria identified in the plan and addressing the threats that resulted in their listing under the ESA.
A co-management agreement is in place for the native subsistence hunts for the other 4 Alaskan stocks of beluga whales. These groups set harvest limits and other requirements to ensure conservation of the species.
On March 3, 1999, we received two petitions to list the Cook Inlet population of beluga whales as endangered under the ESA. The petitioners requested that we issue an emergency listing under section 4(b)(7) of the ESA, designate critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales, and take immediate action to implement rulemaking to regulate the harvest of these whales.
In May 2000, we designated Cook Inlet beluga whales as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, at that time, the agency determined that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population was not threatened or endangered under the ESA. But, because this stock did not show significant evidence of recovery thereafter, we initiated a second Status Review in the spring of 2006.
In April 20, 2006, the Trustees for Alaska petitioned us to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as threatened or endangered under the ESA. We evaluated the petition and conducted a status review.
In October 2008, we determined that beluga whales in the Cook Inlet needed protection under the ESA, and, on October 22, 2008, listed the population as endangered.
In April 2009, we solicited public comments and information in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to designate critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales. In December 2009, we proposed critical habitat [pdf] for Cook Inlet beluga whales. In April 2011, we designated critical habitat [pdf] in the Cook Inlet.
There are no regulatory actions for the other 4 Alaskan stocks of beluga whales.Kingdom: Animalia
Proposed Rule to Designate Sakhalin Bay-Amur River Beluga Whale Stock as Depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
|81 FR 19542||04/05/2016|
|Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Spotlight Species 5-Year Action Plan||n/a||01/25/2016|
|Draft Recovery Plan for Cook Inlet Beluga Whale||80 FR 27925||05/15/2015|
60-day Finding on Petition to Designate Sakhalin Bay-Amur River Beluga Whale Stock as Depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
| 79 FR 44733
79 FR 28879
|Final Critical Habitat Designation for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales||76 FR 20180||04/11/2011|
||74 FR 63080||12/02/2009|
||74 FR 17131||04/14/2009|
|Final Rule to List Cook Inlet Beluga Whale as Endangered||73 FR 62919||10/22/2008|
|Conservation Plan for Cook Inlet Beluga Whale||n/a||10/2008|
|70 FR 12853||03/16/2005|
|Long-term Harvest Limits for Cook Inlet DPS||73 FR 60976||10/15/2008|
|2008 Status Review for Cook Inlet||n/a||04/2008|
|71 FR 14836||03/24/2006|
|6-Month Extension Regarding Petition to List the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale DPS Under the Endangered Species Act||73 FR 21578||04/22/2008|
|Proposed Endangered Status for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale "Distinct Population Segment" (DPS)||72 FR 19854||04/20/2007|
|90-Day Finding for a Petition To List the Cook Inlet population as Endangered under the ESA||71 FR 44614||08/07/2006|
|Depleted Designation for Cook Inlet population||65 FR 34590||05/31/2000|
|Stock Assessment Reports||n/a||various|
- NOAA Alaska Regional Office Beluga Whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska
- NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory Information about Beluga Whales
- NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center Beluga Whale Information
- NOAA Detailed Beluga Whale Fact Sheet [pdf] & NOAA Beluga Whale Fact Sheet Highlights
- Marine Mammal Commission Beluga Whale Information
- Beluga Whale Sounds from Discovery of Sound in the Sea (DOSITS)
- Alaska Department of Fish and Game Beluga Whale Information
Updated: April 5, 2016