After a two-year hiatus, crowds of wildlife lovers will be back this weekend at designated observation points to count beluga whales swimming in Cook Inlet.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be staging a citizen-science event on Saturday called Belugas Count! The annual event was put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has returned this fall.
The daylong event features 16 stations, from Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage to Homer on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, where citizens are invited to gather, watch for the whales, count their appearances and, if possible, photograph them. There are three other designated sites on oil and gas platforms where operators Hilcorp and Glacier Oil and Gas will be doing observations.
The main goal is to increase awareness about endangered populations and help build support for recovery efforts, said Jill Seymour, a marine mammal specialist and the Cook Inlet beluga recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.
“Cook Inlet belugas are of significant cultural and subsistence value to Alaska Native communities and, more generally, are an iconic Alaska species. Anchorage is the only major city in the country where you can walk down to a coastal trail or drive down a highway and see beluga whales,” Seymour said by email.
Cook Inlet belugas have been listed since 2008 as endangered. Earlier, in 2000, they were designated as depleted, a less critical status, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The latest population survey, released in 2020, had a median estimate of 279 animals, down from about 1,300 in the 1970s. The steep decline started in the 1990s and has been attributed to overharvesting by subsistence hunters. But despite a near-total cessation of hunting, the population has not only failed to rebound but has continued to dwindle.
Cook Inlet beluga whales have been designated as one of nine marine “species in the spotlight” that NOAA Fisheries manages that are considered most at risk for extinction.
Several potential causes of the belugas’ troubles are being investigated, including pollution, noise, climate change, disease, competition for food and disease.
Some recent research is focusing on acoustic monitoring of the whales, both to get better information on their seasonal movements and foraging and to gather information on the human-caused noises they encounter while swimming in waters off Alaska’s most populous region.
The Belugas Count! event includes educational activities that focus on the threats to the whales, among other things. Typically, the event draws about 2,000 citizen participants, Seymour said.
The Belugas Count! pause was not the only effect of the pandemic on Cook Inlet research and recovery efforts.
The planned 2020 survey was postponed, and even though that work was rescheduled to 2021, the timing was delayed because of the need to meet various additional COVID-19 precautionary requirements, Seymour said. That, along with bad weather, caused delays that “impacted the quality and precision of the collected data,” she said. Additionally, international experts who typically supported the fieldwork were not able to travel to Alaska because of the pandemic, she said
The 2022 surveys were completed in June, and data from both this year and last year is being analyzed, Seymour said. The next abundance estimate is expected to be released next spring, she said.
The NOAA Fisheries event is co-sponsored by numerous partner agencies, organizations and companies, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Native Village of Tyonek, the Shedd Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium.
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