It Takes a Village
The Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program is run by NOAA Fisheries in collaboration with several organizations. It offers opportunities for volunteer citizen scientists to bolster monitoring efforts for the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population. The volunteers collect important data on beluga distribution and habitat use in nearshore waters of the Inlet while building working relationships with professional scientists. This collaboration has led to standardized scientific monitoring protocols, volunteer training to support monitoring efforts, and coordination of shore-based beluga monitoring activities at multiple sites along Cook Inlet.
The program was founded in 2019. It built upon existing citizen science monitoring efforts to track Cook Inlet belugas through a collaboration between Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, Defenders of Wildlife, and NOAA Fisheries. In June 2019, the program was formed to establish a better foundation to support and strengthen beluga monitoring efforts and standardize monitoring procedures across new and existing sites. Current partners and collaborators of NOAA Fisheries include:
- Alaska Wildlife Alliance
- Beluga Whale Alliance
- Defenders of Wildlife Alaska
- Kenai Peninsula College
- Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
The program’s first collaborative monitoring season started in August 2019 and ran through mid-November. With a team of collaborators and volunteers, the inaugural season was a tremendous success! The program hosts two monitoring seasons annually in spring (mid-March through May) and fall (mid-August through mid-November). Partner organizations and volunteers monitor beluga activity from established monitoring sites. The distribution, nearshore habitat use, and behavioral data collected are shared with scientists and federal agency personnel. The information is used to update marine mammal research and management activities, pinpoint important foraging locations, and understand the impact of human activities.
Why Cook Inlet Belugas?
The critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga is an important part of the regional ecosystem. Its abundance rapidly declined beginning in
the 1980s. NOAA Fisheries designated the Cook Inlet beluga population as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2002 and endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2008.Even though the Cook Inlet beluga is no longer the target of subsistence harvests, the population has not recovered since being ESA-listed. It continues to decline as it faces ongoing human-caused physical and noise threats such as ship and boat traffic, construction, oil and gas activities, fishing, and aviation. While this beluga population is being studied extensively, data on distribution, seasonal habitat use, and behavior throughout Cook Inlet is still insufficient. By participating with ongoing monitoring efforts, citizen scientists can help fill data gaps and contribute to beluga recovery.
Where Does the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program Monitor?
Known beluga feeding areas include the lower reaches and mouths of several rivers and streams that flow into Cook Inlet. During the warmer months, belugas feed intensively on migratory fish and other prey at these sites, often during the rising tide which provides belugas access to shallower habitat. Monitoring at known feeding areas (right) improves the likelihood of observing beluga activity during planned monitoring sessions and provides an opportunity to gather data on beluga feeding ecology. It also helps the program identify potential stressors that belugas may be exposed to during key feeding periods.
Cook Inlet Beluga Youth Scientists
Last fall, the program created a Youth Ambassador position to encourage teenagers to help monitor, set up school programs, or have the
Youth Ambassador visit schools to talk about belugas. This spring, the appointed YA launched the Cook Inlet Beluga Youth Scientists Club at Service High School, where she is a freshman, to support this mission. The club meets weekly to learn more about belugas and receive monitoring and data entry training for the program. A Service High School biology teacher co-leads the club with the YA. On May 1, 2022, three club members and their biology teacher met with two citizen scientists and a NOAA marine mammal biologist (left) at Anchorage’s Ship Creek boat launch monitoring station for their first monitoring session. Once school begins in the fall, the club will meet and recruit more students for the program’s fall monitoring session.
The 2022 annual Belugas Count! celebration and citizen count is set for September 17 in the greater Anchorage area. The event aims to bring citizens together to focus on the Cook Inlet beluga whale, and to foster pride, awareness, and stewardship.