Watching the first sunrays hit the mellow waves of the ocean, a smooth white hump poked out of the water with a smaller dark gray shape swimming alongside. It was a beautiful sight to see - a mother and calf beluga whale swimming together. Sadly, it has become an infrequent occurrence in Cook Inlet in southcentral Alaska, where this population of belugas is critically endangered. Cook Inlet belugas are being watched very closely by volunteers around the region, and they are helping agencies charged with the management of the beluga population with the information collected through citizen science. Volunteers trained in the monitoring protocol (citizen/community scientists) from around Cook Inlet interested in the future of these beloved beluga whales can get involved and help obtain data to assist research efforts that aid in the whale’s recovery.
Almost 200 residents in southcentral Alaska are united for one cause – to raise awareness, count, monitor, and photograph endangered Cook Inlet belugas. While other populations of belugas in Alaska are healthy, Cook Inlet beluga numbers have been plummeting. Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, and they’ve been in the public’s eye on and off since that time. In recent years, Defenders of Wildlife, alongside the National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal entity charged with managing Cook Inlet belugas), state entities, researchers and other organizations and volunteers have worked hard to elevate public awareness regarding Cook Inlet belugas. A new organization formed - the Beluga Whale Alliance (https://www.belugawhalealliance.org/), - which has also helped increase the visibility and public awareness of the plight of the Cook Inlet beluga population. As founder and President of the Beluga Whale Alliance, Suzanne Steinert, has sought worldwide support of local conservation efforts for beluga whales and their Arctic and subarctic habitats.
This year, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) hired a Coordinator and launched a Cook Inlet beluga whale community science (also known as citizen science) monitoring effort. NMFS is working with partner organizations to build the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership, which has been led by NMFS Coordinator, Kimberly Ovitz. The partnership includes Defenders of Wildlife, Beluga Whale Alliance and Alaska Wildlife Alliance. Defenders and Beluga Whale Alliance partnered to co-host one of five observation and monitoring sites around Cook Inlet - the Ship Creek site in downtown Anchorage, adjacent to the Port of Anchorage. It’s a great site for volunteers because it is easily accessible to people in Anchorage, the largest population center in Alaska. Defenders works to help train and guide volunteers in the collection of data at Ship Creek, and then we report the data to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Monitoring by our community scientists occurs every day at the five sites around Cook Inlet for two hours surrounding the high tides. This season alone 55 volunteers completed 77 monitoring sessions for a total of 146 hours at Ship Creek!
The Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership (AKBMP) creates consistency with monitoring protocol and provides volunteer opportunities for community members to become trained as community or citizen scientists. Community/citizen science is an open collaboration where any member of the public can participate in a scientific process that addresses real-world problems. These volunteer scientists can collect and analyze data, interpret results, make discoveries, develop technologies, and help solve complex problems. The more people get involved in scientific processes, the greater an understanding they will have about conservation needs and relationships between humans and the natural, wild environment. Volunteers can help professional scientists and organizations like Defenders identify research questions and develop interdisciplinary solutions. For a population like Cook Inlet belugas, which is on the threshold of extinction, the more eyes, the better the outcome may be.
Knowledge of beluga distribution and seasonal habitat use throughout Cook Inlet is still lacking even though scientists have been conducting studies since 1970. With this new, innovative approach collecting data from community members, everyone can help fill existing knowledge gaps and contribute to beluga recovery. The five designated monitoring sites are scattered throughout the Cook Inlet area and include Ship Creek, Bird Point, Twentymile River, Kenai River, and Kasilof River. For more information, visit https://akbmp.org/data-collection/.
Another way to volunteer your time and talents includes taking photos of Cook Inlet belugas. Do you have a camera? Do you like to take photographs of wildlife? Then you, too, can contribute to saving these beautiful white whales. In collaboration with all of the agencies and groups working on beluga monitoring, the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project, led by researcher, Dr. Tamara McGuire, the Principal Investigator for the project who has studied marine mammals for over 25 years, always welcomes more photos. Dr. McGuire’s research project started in 2005 with a focus on habitat use, life history, behavior, and the effects of human activities on endangered and threatened aquatic species and their habitats. Photographing belugas allows for individual tracking of whales by identifying natural markings, an important aspect in trying to figure out population size. The more photographs and thereby information that can be gathered to assess the size of the population and the condition of the whales, the better our understanding is of the Cook Inlet beluga population. To upload your Cook Inlet beluga photos, visit https://www.cookinletbelugas.com/.