Beluga study underway in Norton Sound
For the first time in nearly 20 years, researchers are conducting a survey of the Eastern Bering Sea stock of beluga whales in the area around Norton Sound and the Yukon River Delta.
"We finally got the money — some funding — to do this survey," said Willie Goodwin, chair of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, which represents villages in the North Slope, Kotzebue Sound, Norton Sound, Yukon Delta, Kuskokwim, and Bristol Bay regions.
The committee is working in partnership with the North Slope Borough and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries' Alaska Fisheries Science Center to do the aerial survey from June 16-29.
"The committee, when we formed that, started to make sure that the different pods in Alaska, [such as] the Bristol Bay, Norton Sound, Kotzebue Sound pods [were monitored]. We had a pretty good program in the late 1990s and early 2000s where we'd get some funds and the committee would decide where we would do our estimates," said Goodwin. "When we had our meeting we decided the Norton Sound area was due for a survey."
In a post on the science center's project blog on June 26, researcher Christy Sims wrote the first week got off to a good start.
"So far, we've had fair weather and excellent survey coverage. As of June 23, we've completed seven out of eight possible flight days, spent 35 flight hours in the survey aircraft, and covered over 2,700 miles," she wrote.
She and fellow scientists Amy Willoughby and Amelia Brower are conducting the air surveys, during which they'll count and photograph visible belugas.
"It's very difficult when it's windy and there's whitecaps out there and there's ice. We fly about 300 feet above sea level," explained Goodwin. "It's an estimate because we don't know what's underwater — what's swimming. But, they come up with a formula that for every one you see up on top, there's four to six underwater swimming. So, that's the formula we've been using to get an estimate. These aren't full accurate counts because there's no way you can count beluga that are swimming underwater unless it's very, very clear and shallow."
Despite the margin of uncertainty, the count is still important for helping managers assess the health and stability of the population.
"We've seen 917 beluga whales, putting us well on track to being able to update the abundance estimate for this population of belugas," Sims wrote in her post. "The majority of the beluga sightings occurred offshore of the Yukon River Delta. This is where we 'expected' to find these whales, based on local knowledge and previous aerial surveys conducted throughout Norton Sound from 1992-2000. Presumably, the belugas are drawn there to feed on Chinook salmon as they return to spawn upriver."
Sims noted the team had also seen other marine mammals including a gray whale, a minke whale, two "unidentified large whales," a few small seals, and what she described as "several walrus carcasses that we were able to document for the regional stranding networks."
For Goodwin and other locals who depend on the beluga as an important component of a balanced traditional diet, the survey is very welcome but long overdue.
"How are you going to manage it if you don't know what's out there? How can you?" he said. "At the bottom line, I guess it's so we can make recommendations to the hunters as far as their harvest numbers are concerned, so the government won't come in and say there's no more hunting, like in Cook Inlet."
As the Sounder previously reported, the community of Buckland has seen its access to beluga plummet over the last several decades for a variety of reasons. There is concern there and in other parts of the Northwest Arctic that the hunt may disappear.
Those along the coast of Western Alaska who keep their eye on the population have noticed changes over the years in how the pods move and adapt to shifting environmental factors.
Diminishing sea ice cover means the whales may be spending less time in the open water every year. It's also potentially paving the way for new predators or stronger populations of predators, Goodwin explained. Locals have reported seeing more killer whales moving north and coming closer to shore as the sea ice has decreased, which some think may be putting a stress on the beluga population along some parts of the coastline.
"The female always comes back to have its young where it was born. There's some critical areas in different parts of Alaska that are important areas that as the calving season begins, there's some kind of cautions that are made to the hunters. We need them to come back," Goodwin said. "There's studies that have been done that show that [not all belugas who are born grow to adulthood]. So, that's a percentage that's scary because they don't have young every year. The calf will follow its mother for two to three years before it's on its own. So, the balance is important to know so that we can continue having beluga around that we can harvest and eat. It's part of our culture."
Once this survey is complete, Goodwin said he'd be interested to see how the population has changed, if at all, since 2000, when the last one of its kind was done.
He also hopes if others recognize the importance of this kind of data collection, it will be possible to secure support for more surveys in the future — and not at an interval of 20 years.
"What I want to know is how come we don't get funded every year to do surveys in different parts of Alaska? Belugas have been around forever, you know?" he said.
Currently, many Alaska Natives are eligible to hunt marine mammals, but Goodwin worries without up-to-date information and data on the populations, the temptation will be there to make management decisions that could have serious effects on local communities.
"There's going to come a time when they're going to try to impose regulations on us and it's important that we counter some of that by our own observations and such, so that we can come up with a better plan than 'no hunting,'" he said.
As the researchers enter their final week of surveying, they hope the weather will stay in their favor so they can come back with a useful and complete data set.
"We need the bases of the clouds to be high enough (1,100-1,200 ft.) so that we have a clear view down to the water, and weak or no winds so that the ocean surface does not have a lot of white-capped waves," Sims wrote on the blog.
Goodwin hopes for the best, as well. Surveys like this help put knowledge back into the hands of people who rely on the resource, so they can make informed decisions on where and how to hunt — or not hunt — depending on the population, he explained.
"We don't know what's going to happen 50 years from now, but we want to be ready."
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.