Killer Whale Predation on Belugas in Cook Inlet, Alaska: Implications for a Depleted Population
Killer whale predation on belugas in Cook Inlet, Alaska has become a concern since the decline of these belugas was documented during the 1990s. Accordingly, killer whale sightings were compiled from systematic surveys, observer databases, and anecdotal accounts. Killer whales have been relatively common in lower Cook Inlet (at least 100 sightings from 1975 to 2002), but in the upper Inlet, north of Kalgin Island, sightings were infrequent (18 in 27 yr), especially prior to the 1990s. Beach cast beluga carcasses with teeth marks and missing flesh also provided evidence of killer whale predation. Most observed killer whale/beluga interactions were in the upper Inlet. During 11 of 15 observed interactions, belugas were obviously injured or killed, either through direct attacks or indirectly as a result of stranding. Assuming at least one beluga mortality occurred during the other four encounters, we can account for 21 belugas killed between 1985 and 2002. This would suggest a minimum estimate of roughly 1/yr and does not include at least three instances where beluga calves accompanied an adult that was attacked.