Editor's note: This story has been changed to correct the end date of Ovitz's observation project.
Early this week Stevie Shackelford saw his first beluga whale in the Kenai River — in fact, he saw a group of about 15 belugas passing the bend near Cunningham Park on Tuesday morning.
“Everybody I’ve talked to doesn’t know they’re in here,” said Shackelford, who moved to the Kenai Peninsula about a year ago. “We’ve been to the beach before and looked for (belugas), but never saw any. I never expected I’d see 15 in one day. And I was also surprised to meet a scientist here.”
The scientist was Kim Ovitz, who since March 15 has been recording how many belugas are appearing where and when on the Kenai River, as well as monitoring other marine mammal activity. Ovitz, a fellow in the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Sea Grant program, will be watching the Kenai River until May 31 to gather data on an under-observed habitat for Cook Inlet’s endangered beluga whale population.
While monitoring beluga activity from Cunningham Park and the bluff top near Kenai’s Vintage Point Senior Center, Ovitz is also looking to start up a conversation. Some locals say they see belugas in the river regularly. Others, like Shackelford, are surprised. Their stories and observations are also part of her research and public participation is one of her goals.
All of her observation sessions will be from publicly accessible spots on the river bank, such as Cunningham Park and the bluff near Vintage Pointe, and she’s hoping to have company. She’s created a website (www.kenaimmmp.com) to solicit interested volunteer observers, and plans to participate in events in early May.
“I’m speaking with locals, anyone who’s interested and knowledgeable on the dynamics here to understand their perception of things like ecosystem health, marine mammal distribution, and how those things might have changed over time — looking at their built-up knowledge of belugas in this area, or other marine mammals, over the past 50 plus years if people have been here that long,” Ovitz said.
Cook Inlet’s beluga population has been declining an average 1.3 percent a year since 1999, in spite of the hunting restrictions put in place that year. There are now around 320 whales, according to the latest estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency managing them since they were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2008.
Their habitat has also shrunk. Though they were once common down to Kachemak Bay, the population now concentrates in the northernmost parts of Cook Inlet — the Knik and Turnagain Arms and the Susitna River delta.
It isn’t well understood where the Kenai River fits in this shrinking patchwork of beluga habitat. NOAA keeps a long-term database of reported beluga sightings, “but there is far less info for the Kenai River compared with other parts of Cook Inlet,” Ovitz wrote in an email.
The nonprofit Cook Inlet Beluga Photo-ID project also records reported beluga sightings, and its website lists five sightings in the Kenai River during April and May 2017. However, Ovitz’s observations may be the most systematic recent documentation of beluga activity in the Kenai River.
“We know the belugas do use the Kenai River still, but how much?” said NOAA wildlife biologist Verena Gill, who is supervising Ovitz’s project. “There are anecdotal tales of many, many belugas using that river. I think it’s a very important area for them.”
So far, Ovitz said she’s been surprised.
“We have seen a lot of whales,” Ovitz said. “Coming down here we were not anticipating the number of whales we are seeing, or the consistency that we’re seeing them. Some of our preliminary results are pretty exciting, in my opinion.”
Ovitz said belugas consistently pass Cunningham Park in groups as large as 27, including both adults and calves. Usually they move quickly upriver about four hours before high tide. She isn’t sure where they go, but guesses it’s downriver of Eagle Rock (river mile 11), which is still iced over. Between an hour and four hours later, the whales meander back down, diving and milling in the river bend near Cunningham Park alongside birds and seals.
Though she can’t observe what’s happening underwater, Ovitz records the behavior as “suspected foraging,” and said the other diving animals support this inference. Recording feeding would require spotting a beluga with prey in its mouth, which Ovitz has yet to do.
What the whales might be feeding on is one of the outstanding questions of their behavior on the river.
Most information on the diets of Cook Inlet belugas comes from the stomach contents of beluga corpses washed ashore, a much more likely event when the Inlet is ice-free in the summer. What food they rely on in the winter and early spring — before large numbers of eulachon, also known as hooligan, begin running up the rivers in late May — is more of an unknown.
“Eulachon is really important to them in the spring, but what are they eating in the Kenai right now?” Gill said. “That would be an interesting question. Perhaps outgoing smolt. Energetically, are they on the edge? Is this a really important time for them? Is it key that they get that eulachon, because all they can get is that outgoing smolt? I think there are a lot of things we’re going to be able to explore on the Kenai.”
As an undergraduate Ovitz studied social thought and political economy before getting a masters in marine policy. She’s based her research on the concept of a “social-ecological system” — viewing the Kenai River’s ecology and its human communities as one whole.
“I’m not a pure biologist by training — I’m more an interdisciplinary scientist,” Ovitz said. “I enjoy looking at both the ecological and the social dynamics. My academic background is really rooted more in the social sciences — sitting down with people, trying to embrace other forms of knowing that aren’t just science. Local people in communities have some of the best knowledge about their local systems available. If we can take the time to sit down and speak with locals, I think we have the potential to learn much, much more about the system we’re studying as scientists.”
Though Ovitz will end her full-time observing after grant funding expires at the end of May, Gill hopes her work will be “the beginning of more intensive monitoring of belugas on the Kenai River,” especially by area residents. In September 2017 NOAA held its first Belugas Count day, an outreach event featuring public whale-counting from shore stations in Knik and Turnagain Arms. When NOAA holds the event this year on September 15, Gill said the agency is hoping to have new stations in Kenai, Homer, and Tyonek.
Though strictly scientific counts of belugas in the Kenai River have been relatively sparse, Gill said local observations may have more to say.
“You never know when somebody’s being a quiet citizen scientist,” Gill said. “Maybe somebody’s been writing this stuff down in their journal, so if we do outreach of this kind, maybe somebody will go, ‘I have notes from the 1950s — I’ve been here homesteading, and I kept journals and here are my notes.’ You never know.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org