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Species Spotlight: Beluga

Beluga whales are known as the canary of the sea. They swim together through the ocean chirping, clicking, whistling, and squealing to one another to navigate the ocean, find their prey, and communicate with other beluga whales. In addition to using echolocation, this animal can exhibit facial expressions thanks to its round, flexible forehead, which is also known as a melon.

When the ice caps melt in the Arctic ocean during the spring, the belugas will migrate towards the Arctic to feed on fish, shrimp, crabs, and mollusks. While living in the Arctic, up to 40% of the animals’ weight can be made up of blubber that protects the belugas from the cold and helps them store their energy. During the summer and fall, as the ice caps begin to form, the beluga pods will slowly migrate south and can sometimes be found in shallow coastal waters, or even seen venturing up the freshwater rivers in Alaska.

Photo Credit: David Merron

Since the belugas are located near the top of the Arctic food chain, they can be considered an indicator species, because a change in their diet and health can indicate a change in the marine environment. Some changes in the marine environment can include disease, pollution, habitat degradation, and other human disturbances. As a predator at the top of the food web, also known as an apex predator, the belugas positively impact marine life by maintaining healthy populations of other marine life. By feeding on the weaker members of their weak prey, the belugas can stop the spread of disease and other bad genes from passing on to the next generation of marine life. Furthermore, the beluga whales are culturally important to the indigenous communities living in the Arctic, due to their use of the skin and outer blubber layer as an important food source.

In 1972, all beluga whales were considered protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act because there were not enough individuals to optimally sustain their population. However, native communities living in the Arctic were still allowed to hunt the beluga whales for subsistence use. Also, in 1973 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed an international treaty known as the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to regulate all species of toothed whales.

Sadly, due to over-harvesting by subsistence hunters during the 1990s, there was a sharp decline in the number of Cook Inlet beluga whales. However, in 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) listed the Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Act due to the decline from 1300 whales to less than 350 whales, which is about an 80% decrease in their population. Despite the endangerment of the Cook Inlet beluga whales, the belugas are listed in CITES Appendix and considered a species of “least concern” globally. In 2018, the NOAA Fisheries estimated approximately 269 Cook Inlet beluga whales, which is considered the most recent abundance estimate. The cause of the steady 2.3% annual decline is undetermined. However, several potential threats have been identified which include habitat destruction, contaminations, food limitations, strandings, climate change, and anthropogenic noise pollution.

Photo Credit: Nansen Weber

Due to their rapid decline, the NOAA Fisheries have been trying to promote the recovery of the belugas through a variety of different conservation and management practices, which includes:

  • Managing whale harvesting

  • Protecting critical habitat

  • Quickly responding to stranded beluga whales

  • Gaining a better understanding of their population

  • Reducing the effects of noise disturbance, and

  • Developing response plans in case an oil spill occurs

With all this knowledge on beluga whales, we have the power to take action. Doing so will require the collaborative efforts of everyone, from hunters to scientists to the governments and even you! You can do your part by educating yourself (and others) and reducing your ecological footprint to protect global habitats and the species among them!

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