Beluga whale swimming with calf. Credit: Chris Garner, Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson
Beluga whale swimming with calf. Credit: Chris Garner, Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson
About the Species
Beluga whale swimming with calf. Credit: Chris Garner, Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson
Beluga whale swimming with calf. Credit: Chris Garner, Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson
Beluga whales are known for their white color and range of vocal sounds, earning them the title of "canary of the sea." They are very social animals, forming groups to hunt, migrate, and interact with each other.
Beluga whales are found globally throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. In the United States, they are found in the state of Alaska. They are at home along coastal bays and inlets and can move between salt and freshwater. A thick layer of fat, called blubber, and thick skin helps them live in the freezing waters of the arctic and subarctic environment. Belugas also lack a dorsal fin so that they can swim with ice.
Beluga whales are vulnerable to many stressors and threats, including pollution, habitat degradation, harassment, interactions with commercial and recreational fisheries, oil and gas exploration, disease, predation from killer whales, and other types of human disturbance.
Commercial and sport hunting once threatened beluga whale populations. These activities are now banned, though some Alaska Natives still hunt beluga whales for subsistence—the practice of hunting marine mammals for food, clothing, and handicrafts are necessary for preserving the livelihood of Native communities. In 2005, a harvest management plan was approved to regulate the Cook Inlet beluga harvest. Alaska Native hunters last harvested Cook Inlet beluga whales in 2005.
All beluga whale populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). NOAA Fisheries has designated the Cook Inlet beluga whale population in Alaska and the Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River stock in Russia as depleted under the MMPA (i.e., they have fallen below their optimum sustainable population levels).
NOAA Fisheries is committed to conserving beluga whales, and protecting and rebuilding depleted and endangered populations. Our scientists and partners use a variety of innovative techniques to study and protect beluga whales. We also work with our partners to protect critical habitat for Cook Inlet belugas and engage the public in conservation efforts.
In the United States, NOAA Fisheries identified five stocks of beluga whales in Alaskan waters. The five stocks of beluga whales are:
Eastern Bering Sea
Eastern Chukchi Sea
Each stock is unique, isolated from one another genetically and geographically by migration routes and preferred habitats. NOAA Fisheries' stock assessment reports estimate population size for marine mammal stocks within U.S. waters.
Worldwide, belugas may number in the hundreds of thousands; however, some stocks are small, numbering in the low hundreds. The endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population has declined by nearly 80 percent since 1979, from about 1,300 whales to an estimated 279 whales in 2018. The rapid decline and dire status of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population makes it a priority for NOAA Fisheries and its partners to promote recovery to prevent extinction.
The population of Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River beluga whales, a stock in the eastern North Pacific off the coast of Russia, is estimated to be around 3,961 whales. In response to a petition, NOAA Fisheries conducted a status review of the stock and designated it as depleted under the MMPA in 2016.
1 distinct population segment
Cook Inlet DPS
Throughout Its Range
Cook Inlet stock
Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River stock
CITES Appendix II
Throughout Its Range
Beluga whales are dark grey as calves. Their skin lightens as they age, becoming white as they reach physical maturity. They lack a pronounced rostrum, or beak, and the top of their head is characterized by a round, flexible “melon” that focuses and modulates their vocalizations, including echolocation “clicks.” They are a toothed whale, possessing 18 to 20 teeth in both the upper and lower jawbones, for a total of 36 to 40 teeth.
The genus name Delphinapterus translates to “dolphin without a fin.” Instead of a dorsal fin, belugas have a tough dorsal ridge, which allows them to swim easily under ice floes (sheets of floating ice). Unlike other whales and dolphins, their neck vertebrae are not fused, so belugas can nod and move their heads from side to side.
Beluga whales are covered with a thick layer of blubber that accounts for up to 40 percent of their weight. The blubber keeps them warm in the arctic waters and stores energy. Some beluga populations shed their outer layer of skin each summer during an annual molt. They rub against coarse gravel in shallow waters to help remove the layer of old, yellowed skin.
Behavior and Diet
Belugas are social animals. They return to their birth areas each summer to feed and calve. Groups may range from one or two whales to several hundred whales. Individuals move between groups within these populations, unlike some killer whales, which appear to have strong ties within their maternal-led pods.
Belugas are known as the "canaries of the sea" because they produce many different sounds, including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks. They rely on their hearing and ability to echolocate, using sound to navigate and hunt for prey. Belugas also have sharp vision in and out of water.
Beluga whales have a varied diet consisting of octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, snails, and sandworms. They also eat a variety of fish, including salmon, eulachon, cod, herring, smelt, and flatfish.
Where They Live
Beluga whales live in the Arctic Ocean and its nearby seas in the Northern Hemisphere. They are common to many regions of Alaska, as well as Russia, Canada, and Greenland. Belugas are usually found in shallow coastal waters during the summer months, often in shallow water. During other seasons, they may be found in deeper waters, diving to 1,000-meter depths for periods of up to 25 minutes. They swim among ice floes in arctic and subarctic waters, where temperatures may be as low as 32°F. Belugas also seasonally inhabit estuaries and large river deltas to feed on fish runs, and are thus well-adapted to both cold ocean habitats and relatively warmer freshwater habitats.
World map providing approximate representation of the beluga whale's range.
Lifespan & Reproduction
Similar to tree rings that can be used to age a tree, beluga teeth acquire a “growth layer group” (GLG) for each year they age. The oldest beluga on record had 80 GLGs, though this may be an underestimate of the whale’s true age due to the wear on their teeth. The oldest Cook Inlet beluga whale had 49 GLGs.
Beluga whales are believed to mate in late winter and spring. Depending on the population, this may occur during migration or in their wintering grounds. Females reach sexual maturity when they are about 6 to 14 years old, and males when they are slightly older. Pregnancy lasts approximately 15 months, and calves nurse for at least 2 years. Females can give birth every 2 to 3 years. Pregnancy rates showed signs of decline after age 46 years old in northwest Alaska. It is notable, however, that the oldest female in the northwest Alaska sample, at age 70, was carrying a near-term fetus. The oldest female beluga whale from Cook Inlet was 47 years old and appeared to have recently given birth.
Belugas generally give birth during summer in areas where the water is relatively warm, as newborn calves lack a thick blubber layer to protect them from cold water. Calves benefit from the warmer waters found in shallow tidal flats and estuaries.
Beluga whale populations are exposed to a variety of stressors and threats, including pollution (e.g., chemicals, trash), shipping, energy exploration and development, commercial fishing, extreme weather events, strandings, predation from killer whales and polar bears, underwater noise, subsistence harvesting, and other types of human disturbance. The Cook Inlet population has additional threats because of its proximity to the most densely populated area of Alaska (Anchorage).
Beluga whales are susceptible to habitat destruction and degradation. This can range from barriers that limit their access to important migration, breeding, feeding, and calving areas, to activities that destroy or degrade their habitats. Barriers that could prevent beluga movements may include shoreline and offshore development (oil and gas exploration and development, harbors and ports, dredging, pile driving) and increased boat traffic. Contaminant releases may also degrade habitat.
Contaminants enter ocean waters from many sources, including point source and nonpoint source, such as oil and gas development, wastewater discharges, urban runoff, and other industrial processes. Once in the environment, these substances move up the food chain and accumulate in predators at the top of the food chain such as beluga whales. Because contaminants have long lifespans and blubber stores, belugas accumulate these contaminants in their bodies, threatening their immune and reproductive systems.
Overfishing, habitat changes, development, and the impacts of climate change can decrease the amount of food available to beluga whales. Without enough prey, belugas might experience decreased reproductive rates and increased mortality rates. Understanding the potential for food limitations to hinder population recovery is especially important for Cook Inlet beluga whales because they live in an area with high human activity.
Live strandings occur when marine mammals become "beached" or stuck in shallow water. The exact cause of most stranding cases is unknown. Belugas may strand when molting avoiding predators; or avoiding other threats, such as noise and vessel traffic; when chasing prey, or when suffering from injuries or disease. Unlike other whales and dolphins, healthy belugas that live-strand wait for the high tide to refloat and swim to deeper water. Unfortunately, belugas have died after live strandings. Belugas with compromised immune systems may not survive a live stranding through a tide cycle.
Underwater noise pollution interrupts the normal behavior of beluga whales, which rely on sound to communicate and echolocate. If loud enough, noise can cause permanent or temporary hearing loss. This is of particular concern for the Cook Inlet population, which inhabits an area with high vessel traffic, oil and gas exploration and development, dredging and pile-driving, airports, military operations, and other noise-making anthropogenic (human-caused) activities.
The impacts of climate change on whales are unknown, but it is considered one of the largest threats facing high latitude regions where many gray whales forage. Most notably, the timing and distribution of sea ice coverage is changing dramatically with altered oceanographic conditions. Any resulting changes in prey distribution could lead to changes in foraging behavior, nutritional stress, and diminished reproduction for beluga whales. Additionally, changing water temperature and currents could impact the timing of environmental cues important for navigation and migration.
Last updated by NOAA Fisheries on 03/08/2023
What We Do
Conservation & Management
All Beluga whales are protected under the MMPA. Our conservation efforts are focused on rebuilding the depleted and endangered Cook Inlet population, and we monitor the other populations in Alaskan waters (Beaufort Sea, Bristol Bay, eastern Bering Sea, and eastern Chukchi Sea stocks). Our management actions to protect beluga whales include:
Protecting beluga habitat
Minimizing effects of noise disturbance
Responding to stranded beluga whales
Developing disaster response plans in the event of disaster
Reviewing projects that could harm beluga whales and/or its habitat
Monitoring subsistence harvests
Educating the public about belugas and the threats they face
Our research projects have discovered new aspects of beluga whale biology, behavior, and ecology and help us better understand the challenges that all beluga whales face. This research is especially important in recovering depleted and endangered populations. Our work includes:
Stock assessments of beluga population size and trends
Aerial surveys of beluga populations and distribution
Measurements of belugas’ response to sounds using passive acoustic recorders and acoustic recording tags on belugas
Satellite tagging and tracking beluga movement, range, and distribution
Photogrammetry of belugas to measure growth and identify newborn calves
Photo-identification of belugas to estimate abundance and assess reproductive status
Promotion of citizen science to document beluga distribution and behavior
The Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight. This initiative is a concerted, agency-wide effort launched in 2015 to spotlight and save the most highly at-risk marine species.
Beluga whales are highly social, gregarious animals. They squeal, squeak, and chirp, which is why sailors long ago called them “sea canaries.” Of the five Alaskan beluga stocks, the Cook Inlet beluga stock is the smallest and is geographically isolated from the other stocks.
Cook Inlet belugas are a valuable part of the regional Alaska Native subsistence diet, however, the harvest has been regulated when the population declined rapidly—most likely because of unregulated subsistence harvest at a level this small population could not sustain. Although the hunt has been suspended since 2007, the whale population has not recovered as expected.
In 2000, NOAA Fisheries designated the Cook Inlet beluga whale population as a Candidate Species under the Endangered Species Act and as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 2008, the Cook Inlet beluga Distinct Population Segment (DPS) was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Cook Inlet beluga whale population’s rapid decline, dire status, and the fact the population is not recovering makes it a priority for NOAA Fisheries and its partners to recover and prevent extinction of this iconic species.
Where Cook Inlet Beluga Whales Live
Cook Inlet beluga whales predominately share the upper and middle portions of Cook Inlet with Alaska’s human population center (Anchorage), transportation hub, and largest concentration of industrial activity.
Generally, belugas spend the ice-free months in upper Cook Inlet, gathering in discrete river mouths, in high-use areas with plenty of fish. Breeding and then calving typically occur during this gathering period. After the anadromous fish runs end in late fall and ice begins to form in the upper inlet, belugas begin to disperse into smaller groups, and some head south to the deeper waters of the mid and lower portions of Cook Inlet during winter.
The population has declined by nearly 80 percent since 1979—from about 1,300 whales to around 279 today.
Beluga whales exhibit seasonal shifts in distribution and habitat use within Cook Inlet, but they stay in the inlet throughout their lives. The whales’ seasonal shifts appear to be related to corresponding changes in their physical environment (e.g., ice formation in winter) and food sources, specifically the timing of fish runs.
The summer range of Cook Inlet belugas has changed significantly since the 1970s, contracting northward and eastward toward Anchorage in upper Cook Inlet. This range contraction coincided with the population’s rapid decline. This puts a larger portion of the endangered population near the most densely populated area of the state during the busy summer season, when boating, construction, and other human activities all increase.
The reason for the Cook Inlet beluga’s distribution change is unknown, but the quieter Susitna River delta appears to be an important feeding area that continues to be occupied by large groups of belugas during the ice-free period. The whales’ summer range is extremely silty due to the glaciers that feed into upper Cook Inlet, limiting their visibility in the water. Their adept use of sound is thus essential to communicate, locate prey, avoid predators, and navigate. Cook Inlet is a naturally noisy environment because of its extreme tides and heavy silt load. Adding human sounds from ship traffic, construction projects, oil and gas activities, airports and other sources can make it more difficult for belugas to thrive.
Especially loud underwater sounds can kill marine mammals, but sublethal effects are more common, including injury or behavioral changes that range from mild (e.g., increased vocalizations) to severe (e.g., abandonment of vital habitat). Thus, assessing and managing the effects of human-caused noise is a major issue for the conservation and recovery of Cook Inlet beluga whales.
NOAA Fisheries formed a recovery team of scientists and stakeholders, including Alaska Native partners, the oil and gas industry, fishing group, environmental organizations, the state of Alaska, and other federal agencies to help develop a Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery plan. We finalized the recovery plan (PDF, 284 pages) in December 2016. The plan builds upon scientific studies, traditional knowledge, and other observations and information sources to identify gaps in our knowledge and the research needed to fill those gaps. The recovery plan also identifies specific criteria that will signal the recovery of these animals.
Continue to improve our understanding of why Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering by enhancing the Stranding Response Program;
Reduce anthropogenic noise that may disrupt feeding or breeding for Cook Inlet beluga whales;
Protect habitats that support foraging or reproduction of Cook Inlet beluga whales from other anthropogenic and natural threats;
Gain a better understanding of population characteristics of Cook Inlet beluga whales to ensure effective management actions result in recovery; and
Ensure healthy and plentiful prey are available.
In the first five years of Species in the Spotlight, we have taken important steps toward finding out more about what we can do to stabilize this species and prevent its further decline. Our accomplishments include:
Supported photo ID study of population, which is used to assess individual survival and
reproductive history as well as group size, distribution, age-classes, habitat use, and other key data;
Conducted biennial summer aerial surveys to assess abundance and population trends;
Worked with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on winter distribution aerial surveys to better understand beluga habitat and distribution during non-summer months;
Continued biopsy sampling study for genetics, sex, reproductive status, and contaminant loads;
Started Belugas Count!, a one-day celebration and count each September with numerous partners;
Carried out unmanned aircraft flights to identify individuals and their health.
2017 Species in the Spotlight Hero Award
The Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Environmental Element, Natural Resources Section's Cook Inlet Beluga conservation program epitomizes the cooperative spirit of the Species in the Spotlight initiative. The program proactively conducts beluga research and conservation activities (many of which address priority actions identified in the 5-year action plan). The program partners, collaborates, and assists with other programs towards the goal of recovering the endangered Cook Inlet Beluga whale.
Over the previous two years, Sue Goodglick of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has become a crucial member of the multi-partner Cook Inlet beluga whale team. Sue is a wildlife biologist with Alaska's Marine Mammals Program. She had been assisting with pinniped research and coordination until spring 2017 when a call went out for someone from the state to partner with us for the inaugural Belugas Count! event.
Barbara Švarný Carlson has been a passionate and dedicated advocate for Cook Inlet beluga whales for two decades, both in her professional and personal life. The President and Executive Director of Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (FAR), in 2007, Barbara spearheaded the creation of the Anchorage Coastal Beluga Survey, the first collaborative citizen science effort with NOAA Fisheries and partners to collect data on the distribution and behavior of Cook Inlet belugas. She was also one of the first planning members of the annual Belugas Count! event and she and FAR volunteers continue to play a vital role in organizing and co-hosting what has become the largest one-day education and outreach effort for Cook Inlet belugas. More broadly, Barbara is known for her conviction and dedication to supporting and conserving the coastal ecosystems that support Cook Inlet beluga whales. Learn more about Barbara's work
In the United States, NOAA Fisheries works to protect all beluga whale populations living off the coastlines, bays, and rivers of Alaska. This includes monitoring subsistence harvests and conducting abundance and distribution surveys. Additional management strategies and oversight are required for the endangered Cook Inlet population.
Recovery Planning and Implementation
NOAA Fisheries is required to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation and survival of ESA-listed species. The Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery plan builds upon both scientific studies and traditional knowledge from Alaska Natives. The plan’s ultimate goal is to recover the species, with an interim goal of down-listing its status from endangered to threatened.
The plan recommends the following major actions:
Protect habitat and designate critical habitat
Minimize the effects of noise disturbance
Respond to stranded beluga whales
Implement oil spill response plans in the event of a spill
Review projects that could harm beluga whales
Manage subsistence harvests
Educate the public about belugas and the threats they face
The ESA authorizes NOAA Fisheries to appoint recovery teams to help develop and implement recovery plans. In 2010, we convened a recovery team to aid in the development of a draft recovery plan for Cook Inlet beluga whales. The recovery team was composed of two voluntary advisory groups: a science panel and a stakeholder panel. In 2013, the recovery team provided a first draft of the recovery plan and the team disbanded. NOAA Fisheries solicited review and public comment on the draft recovery plan and released a final plan in December 2016.
Some efforts to conserve the Cook Inlet beluga whale include:
Continued monitoring of the status of the Cook Inlet population and developing a greater understanding of their biology
Improve our understanding of the effects of threats to Cook Inlet belugas
Improve the management of threats to reduce or eliminate the effect of those threats
Integrate research findings into current and future management actions
Keep the public informed and educated about the status of Cook Inlet belugas, the threats limiting their recovery, and how the public can help achieve recovery of these whales
NOAA Fisheries will continue to involve stakeholders in this priority species initiative as the plan’s key strategies for preventing extinction are implemented over the coming years.
Recovery Implementation Task Force
NOAA Fisheries and the State of Alaska, Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) recognize that successful recovery of Cook Inlet belugas will require a multifaceted approach, including: understanding and monitoring the Cook Inlet beluga population (i.e., research); assessing, preventing, mitigating or abating threats to the population’s recovery (i.e., habitat and threats management); and garnering public support through improved outreach and education. In an effort to promote recovery, the Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Implementation Task Force includes three distinct committees which will focus on each of these general topics:
a) Research Committee;
b) Habitat and Threats Management Committee; and
c) Outreach Committee.
The primary role of the Committees is to engage the expertise of researchers, managers, communicators, and various other stakeholders to advise NOAA Fisheries and ADF&G on specific topics or issues relating to Cook Inlet beluga recovery. The Committees provide guidance and recommendations for most effective recovery action implementation based on existing and new data and commercial information, as it becomes available, and help prioritize limited resources to make the most difference in achieving recovery. The focus is on short-term actions that can be completed in the next 2 to 5 years without losing sight of the importance of long-term projects and research.
Once a species is listed under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries evaluates and identifies whether any areas meet the definition of critical habitat. Those areas may be designated as critical habitat through a rulemaking process. The designation of an area as critical habitat does not create a closed area, marine protected area, refuge, wilderness reserve, preservation, or other conservation area; nor does the designation affect land ownership. Federal agencies that undertake, fund, or permit activities that may affect these designated critical habitat areas are required to consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure that their actions do not adversely modify or destroy designated critical habitat.
In 2011, we designated two areas of Cook Inlet as critical habitat because they are essential for the beluga whales' survival. These areas provide important feeding habitats and places where belugas can hide from their predators, killer whales.
Underwater noise threatens beluga whale populations, interrupting their normal behavior and driving them away from areas important to their survival. Increasing evidence suggests that exposure to intense underwater sound in some settings may cause some whales to strand and ultimately die. NOAA Fisheries is investigating all aspects of acoustic communication and hearing in marine animals, as well as the effects of sound on whale behavior and hearing. In 2016, we issued technical guidance for assessing the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) sound on marine mammal hearing.
In Cook Inlet, Alaska, we review permits for anthropogenic activities and suggest ways to decrease the amount of noise they create. We also set in-water construction guidelines that outline which noise levels are harmful to beluga whales. We aim to develop a database to store information about underwater sound in Cook Inlet.
Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings including all whales. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health and determine the best course of action. When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes attribute strandings to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and underwater noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Beluga whales have never been part of a declared unusual mortality event. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an unusual mortality event is defined as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response." To understand the health of marine mammal populations, scientists study unusual mortality events.
Cook Inlet beluga whales live near oil and gas exploration and production activities. Impacts from these activities include increased ship traffic, oil spills, pollution, seismic research, in-water noise, and habitat degradation. To reduce the risk of oil spills, Alaska’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response created an oil and hazardous substance spill plan called the "Unified Plan". NOAA Fisheries helped write the plan’s Wildlife Protection Guidelines (PDF, 220 pages) to ensure they protect belugas and marine mammals, as well as other wildlife in Cook Inlet.
Managing Subsistence Harvest
The MMPA allows NOAA Fisheries to enter cooperative agreements with Alaska Native organizations to conserve marine mammals and co-manage subsistence activities, including beluga whale hunts. Alaska Natives hunt beluga whales for subsistence and traditional handicrafts. Belugas are both a food source and a significant part of the cultural and spiritual basis of Native communities.
Notably, past harvest practices have significantly impacted the Cook Inlet beluga whale population. NOAA Fisheries worked with Cook Inlet Native communities to create a long term harvest plan to implement regulations on belugas harvested in Cook Inlet. Between 1999 and 2005, Alaska Native hunters harvested five Cook Inlet beluga whales before it was suspended entirely.
Educating the Public
NOAA Fisheries aims to increase public awareness and support for beluga conservation programs through education, outreach, and public participation. We regularly share information with the public about the status of belugas, as well as our research and efforts to promote their recovery.
All marine mammals, including beluga whales, are protected in the United States under the MMPA. One population of beluga whales—Cook Inlet—is listed as endangered under the ESA.
Beluga Populations Managed Under the MMPA
In 2000, NOAA Fisheries designated the Cook Inlet stock as depleted under the MMPA in response to a significant population decline. We also took steps to restrict subsistence harvest of Cook Inlet belugas. Only five whales were harvested between 2000and 2005, and no subsistence harvest of this population has been allowed since 2007. In 2008, we published a conservation plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whale.
The Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River stock off the coast of Russia was also designated as depleted under the MMPA in 2016.
Beluga Population Managed Under the ESA
In 2008, the Cook Inlet population was listed as endangered under the ESA. We designated critical habitat for this population in 2011 and released a final recovery plan in December 2016.
We have now completed the 5-year review and conclude that no change to the listing status is warranted at this time.
NOAA Fisheries announces its intent to conduct a 5-year review of the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas)…
On August 27, 2020, NOAA Fisheries issued Permit No. 22629 to Mystic Aquarium (Responsible Party: Stephen M. Coan, Ph.D.) to import five captive-born beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) for scientific research. The whales may be imported…
NOAA Fisheries, in an effort to increase preparedness for wildlife response under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, has drafted guidelines for marine mammal response in disaster situations in Cook Inlet and Kodiak, Alaska entitled "Cook Inlet and Kodiak…
We, NOAA Fisheries, announce the adoption and availability of an Endangered Species Act Recovery Plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) distinct population segment (DPS) found in Cook Inlet, Alaska.
NOAA Fisheries scientists are leading the effort to answer key questions about beluga whales, with a special focus on the Cook Inlet population. Current research includes studies of beluga whale behavior, ecology, health, distribution, and population trends.
NOAA Fisheries scientists and their collaborators track location data from satellite tags deployed on whales to determine their movements, distribution, diving behavior, and range. In Alaska, scientists and Native subsistence hunters work together to place satellite tags on belugas.
From 1999 to 2002, we attached satellite tags to belugas in Cook Inlet and observed their year-round distribution for the first time. Tag data showed seasonal changes in beluga behavior. During the ice-covered period (December to March), tagged whales did not completely abandon upper Cook Inlet and remained within the ice floes. Whales with dive-monitoring tags identified deeper dives and for longer periods. Long-term abundance survey studies show that seasonal range of the beluga whales in Cook Inlet contracted since the early 1990s as the size of the population has decreased.
From 2007 to 2009, scientists from the United States, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia worked together to track beluga movements and habits throughout arctic and subarctic waters using satellite tags. This international project helped us learn more about the behavior, distribution and life history of belugas.
Scientists in Alaska make sure to research and track all beluga whale populations and their movements. ABWC tagged belugas in:
Bristol Bay (2002, 2003, 2006–2008, 2011, 2012, 2014)
Eastern Bering Sea (2012, 2014, 2016, 2019)
Eastern Chukchi Sea (1998–2014, 2016–2017, 2019)
Belugas in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas migrate south to the Bering Sea in the winter to avoid ice in the Arctic. This migration is called wintering. From satellite tagged belugas, we learned the three Bering Sea wintering beluga whale populations (Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Sea) do no interact or overlap at any time or space.
NOAA Fisheries conducts observational studies using photo-identification and other techniques to understand the behavior and population dynamics of Cook Inlet beluga whales, as well as threats against them.
The Cook Inlet Beluga Whale (CIBW) Photo-ID Project began in 2005 and continues to the present day, conducting surveys of Cook Inlet belugas and developing a photo-identification catalog of individuals. The data collected help us learn more about individual movement patterns, preferred habitat, interactions with human activities, social structure, how often individual mothers give birth, and how long calves remain with their mothers. The CIBW Photo-ID Project was established and developed through funding from a combination of NGOs, industry, agencies, research foundations and Tribes, including from NOAA Fisheries beginning in 2012. Data from the project are shared with the public and with project partners, including NOAA Fisheries who is currently using them in population models. NOAA Fisheries is also contributing photos to the catalog from their recent biopsy and hexacopter studies, and in exchange, receiving data on the long-term sighting histories of these individuals. Learn more about the Cook Inlet beluga whale photo-identification project
In 2017, scientists began using hexacopters (aerial drones) to collect photographs of the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale to estimate the length of individual animals and learn more about why they have been slow to recover despite many efforts to help them. Knowing the length of the whales helps scientists determine whether they are adults, juveniles, or calves, and allows them to distinguish calves of the year (neonates) from one year old calves. Beluga whales give birth from late July to September. By conducting hexacopter photography surveys each year in late August or early September, we hope to monitor calf production and compare that to environmental factors, such as the strength of salmon runs in a given year—an important food source for belugas.
NOAA Fisheries scientists and their collaborators collect tissue samples to study the chemicals that belugas are exposed to in Cook Inlet. Our scientists also test whether pollutants and oil spills affect the fish that belugas eat. This research helps us understand the threats that belugas and their prey face when harmful substances are spilled in Cook Inlet.
Other research focuses on the acoustic environment of cetaceans, including beluga whales. Acoustics is the science of how sound is transmitted. This research involves increasing our understanding of the basic acoustic behavior of whales, dolphins, and fish; mapping the acoustic environment; and developing better methods to locate cetaceans using autonomous gliders and passive acoustic arrays.
We use acoustic science to monitor beluga hearing levels and feeding behavior. We also study how underwater noise in Cook Inlet affects the way belugas behave, eat, interact, and move within their habitat.
Scientists use small aircraft to observe beluga whales in Cook Inlet and other regions in Alaska to record their numbers and distribution. Surveys typically occur during the summer months when whales are concentrated in bays and estuaries within their respective stock areas. By comparing numbers collected over multiple years, scientists can look for trends—i.e., whether the population is increasing, decreasing, or remaining stable during a given period.
Aerial surveys, along with satellite tagging studies, have documented that Cook Inlet beluga whales have contracted their distribution into a much smaller area in the upper inlet during summer months than had been previously observed in the late 1970s—important information for wildlife managers.
Determining the number of beluga whales in each population—and whether a stock is increasing or decreasing over time—helps resource managers assess the success of enacted conservation measures. Our scientists collect information and present these data in an annual stock assessment report.
This study marks the first acoustic comparison between wild belugas and narwhals from the same location and provides strong support for the use of echolocation in PAM efforts to differentiate belugas and narwhals acoustically.