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Cook Inlet Beluga research presented during local symposium

Posted: January 14, 2014 - 11:05pm
Photo Courtesy/ LGL Alaska Research Associates, Inc.; taken under NMFS General Authorization LOC # 481-1795-01 and MMPA/ESA Research Permit # 14210.
Photo Courtesy/ LGL Alaska Research Associates, Inc.; taken under NMFS General Authorization LOC # 481-1795-01 and MMPA/ESA Research Permit # 14210.

Several organizations which did research on the endangered population of Cook Inlet Beluga whales will be presenting the results of several projects during a Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Symposium Thursday and Friday at the River Center in Soldotna.

Using federal grant money, about $700,000, provided through the Marine Mammal Data Program, local organizations including the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, CIRCAC, and the Alaska SeaLife Center carried out research on factors including habitat, food sources, and environmental factors that could be playing a role in reducing the population of whales.

One group, LGL AK Research Associates, Inc., also carried out a photo-identification of the genetically distinct Cook Inlet belugas to track movement patterns, habitat, social structure, alongside reproductive and general health.

Susan Saupe, director of science and research for CIRCAC, said the goal of all of the research was to fill in data gaps in research on the population and help the state and federal government better understand how the beluga population could be restored.

CIRCAC designed a study to look at how contaminants could potentially be affecting food sources for the whales.

“In particular we were targeting hydrocarbon contaminants,” Saupe said. “In part because there was really no data on hydrocarbons and marine mammals in Cook Inlet and, really, basically in Alaska.”

The organization also wanted to understand better the winter habitat of the whales.

“In the summer they’re really concentrated in where they feed to follow the salmon into mouths of rivers and they kind of concentrate there and also they’re easier to see and observe when there’s no ice,” Saupe said. “There was a real lack of understanding of what food was available in the winter.”

A final report from the CIRCAC project is expected in the spring of 2014, however the results will be presented during the symposium.

The projects are in various stages of completion but a few were completed in 2013 including the Alaska SeaLife Center’s efforts to record the historical distribution and habitat used by the Cook Inlet whales within the boundaries of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Carrie Goertz, staff veterinarian at the sea life center, said center staff have been building on some of the research produced by project and continue to do indirect research on the whale population.

When the whales were listed as endangered, direct research on the group was suspended, she said.

“It’s only observational,” she said. “Since the listing, no animals have been captured to be sampled or studied.”

The SeaLife Center staff rely on carcasses of recently dead whales to do a lot of their research.

“A lot of what we know about the Cook Inlet beluga diet comes from studying the deceased animals,” she said.

The presentations will run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon on Friday at the Donald Gilman River Center, 514 Funny River Road in Soldotna.

Reach Rashah McChesney at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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