Beluga Whales

Marine Mammal Program Coordinator: Helen Chythlook

Helen Chythlook, Marine Mammal Coordinator at BBNA has been working with Lori Quakenbush, Lead Project Coordinator for the BBMMC Bristol Bay Beluga Research Project.

Beluga whale sightings

Two teams have just returned from the Nushagak and the Kvichak where they were tagging, sampling, and biopsying beluga whales. This work was covered by NMFS Marine Mammal Research Permit No. 782-1719.

The Nushagak beluga team was active in Bristol Bay from 15–22 May 2008. One objective of the study was to capture 10 beluga whales and put satellite transmitters on them to track their movements (Fig. 1). Previously we tagged 5 belugas in the Kvichak in 2002, 5 more in 2003 and 5 in the Nushagak in 2006. In the fall of 2008 we are planning to tag 10 more belugas. By compiling the previous tag data with the new data, we will have a good idea of beluga movements around Bristol Bay in all seasons.

Another objective was to determine what healthy belugas look like by collecting samples such as blood, blubber thickness, feces, and some stomach contents to provide information on beluga health. Samples like these have not been collected from wild belugas before so first we needed to find out if the samples could be collected. Now that we know we can collect them we would like to capture belugas in Cook Inlet and compare the results. Because Bristol Bay belugas are known to be healthy and the population is growing this comparison may tell us what could be wrong with the Cook Inlet belugas.

In addition to the tagging and sampling we also collected skin biopsies from 22 belugas that were not captured first. We do this by approaching a beluga with a boat and throwing a harpoon with a special biopsy tip. Skin samples are being used to estimate the size of the beluga population by using genetics to identify individuals. If a beluga is sampled more than once we can identify it and know if has already been sampled. The number of “re-samples” tells how many belugas are in the population. If during the second or third field season many of the whales were re-samples then your population is small. If most of your belugas have not been sampled before, your population is large.

The Nushagak crew included veterinarians from Anchorage and, the SeaLife Center, researchers from Seattle, Alaska Pacific University, and from aquaria in Conneticut (Mystic Aquarium) and Georgia. Instrumental to the crew due to their local knowledge of the area and their boat skills were Albert Roehl, Jr., Tom Olson (Cuyrung Tribal Council members), and Tom Bavilla, Jr., Ben Tinker, and Fred Bartman (Aleknagik Traditional Council members).

The Kvichak beluga team collected over 100 skin samples in three days. We have been doing skin biopsies on the Kvichak side since 2004. The experienced beluga crew members Nick Apokedak and Gus Tallekpalek are members of the Levelock Village Council. Now we have collected approximately 300 biopsies from this area.

These studies are approved by and done in cooperation with the Bristol Bay Native Association, Bristol Bay Marine Mammal Council. Other cooperators include the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Marine Mammal Laboratory, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Togiak Refuge), and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. All capture, handing, sampling, biopsying and tagging of belugas were done as permitted by NMFS Marine Mammal Research Permit No. 782-1719 and each whale is handled carefully to minimize the risk of harm.

We are planning to tag and sample 10 more belugas in September 2008 to collect health information and movements in fall.

Belugas December 2008
Belugas December 2008
Belugas January 2009
Belugas January 2009
Belugas February 2009
Belugas February 2009
 	"Spider tag" radio attaches to the whale's back through a layer of blubber.
“Spider tag” radio attaches to the whale’s back through a layer of blubber.
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