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Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

Status | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution | Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview | Taxonomy | Key Documents | More Info

beluga whale
Beluga Whale
(Delphinapterus leucas)
Photo: NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory

Beluga Whale range map
Beluga Whale Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)

beluga whale critical habitat
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.

Status

ESA Endangered - Cook Inlet DPS (Alaska)
MMPA Depleted - Cook Inlet (Alaska), Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River stock
CITES Appendix II - throughout its range
 

The Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight                   

Species Description

Weight:
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).
 
Length:
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).
 
Appearance:
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..
Lifespan:
35-50 years, or using the one growth layer group (teeth) per year theory 60-70 years
Diet:
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.
Behavior:
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 This link is an external site.. 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.

Habitat

Beluga whales are generally found in shallow coastal waters, often in water barely deep enough to cover their bodies, but have also been seen in deep waters. They seem well adapted to both a cold ocean habitat and a warmer freshwater habitat. Belugas can be found swimming among icebergs and ice floes in the waters of the Arctic and subarctic, where water temperatures may be as low as 32° F (0° C). They can also be found in estuaries and river basins.

Critical Habitat

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).

Distribution

Beluga whales are circumpolar in distribution. Beluga whales inhabit the Arctic and subarctic regions of

Specifically, they inhabit the Arctic Ocean and its adjoining seas, including the

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 Trends

In the U.S., there are distinct stocks of beluga whales--all in Alaska--of which the Cook Inlet DPS is the only ESA-listed population. It is the most isolated population; genetic samples suggest these whales have been isolated for several thousand years. The Cook Inlet stock has been severely reduced in numbers over the last several decades. We estimate this population numbered as many as 1,300 in the late 1970s. The 2014 estimate is about 340 beluga whales in the Cook Inlet. Population size estimates from the most recent Stock Assessment Reports are available on our website.

Threats

For Cook Inlet belugas, potential threats identified in the draft recovery plan include:

Historical threats for belugas include

The other 4 Alaskan stocks have levels of subsistence harvest that do not threaten their survival

Conservation Efforts

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.

Regulatory Overview

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.

Taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Monodontidae
Genus: Delphinapterus
Species: leucas

Key Documents

(All documents are in PDF format.)
Title Federal Register Date

Final Rule Designating the Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River Stock as Depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act

81 FR 74711 10/27/2016

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
07/31/2014



05/20/2014
Final Critical Habitat Designation for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales 76 FR 20180 04/11/2011
  • Proposed Critical Habitat for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales
74 FR 63080 12/02/2009
  • Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Designate Critical Habitat for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales
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
n/a 10/2008
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

More Information

 

Updated: October 27, 2016