Four belugas found dead after being stranded

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Two more beluga whales have been found dead bringing the total to four after dozens of the white whales were temporarily stranded on the mud flats of Turnagain Arm, officials said Saturday.

The dead whales apparently were among the 46 belugas that were grounded for several hours Thursday near Girdwood, about 40 miles southeast of Anchorage, by extreme low tides.

The group of whales swam out with the high tide Thursday night, said Barbara Mahoney, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

One of the dead belugas washed ashore Friday morning below a Seward Highway pullout north of the site of the stranding. The second whale washed up on the west side of Turnagain Arm. The other two were seen floating.

An aerial survey, conducted by NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement on Friday, confirmed the four deaths, said Sheela McLean, a NOAA spokeswoman in Juneau.

Mahoney said another aerial survey was planned for Saturday after the high tide.

A necropsy was conducted on the the dead whale that washed ashore Friday morning. The whale was male and 13 feet and 8 inches long. Various tissue samples were taken. Alaska Native subsistence hunters, working with NOAA Fisheries and the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council, harvested the blubber and meat.

Necropies are planned for the other three dead whales if conditions make it possible, McLean said.

The belugas likely were feeding on silver salmon passing through Cook Inlet when tides went out farther than usual Thursday afternoon, said Mahoney, the agency's beluga whale program coordinator. The whales were unable to get away before they were beached at least a half mile on the flats.

The animals were scattered over a mile area and unreachable because of water channels in the flats. They were stranded for hours before the incoming tide began freeing them at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

NOAA officials have said the prognosis is good for the rest of the belugas, which are considered a depleted stock in Cook Inlet under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The inlet population is geographically separate from four other beluga stocks that live in Alaska waters.

Beluga strandings are not uncommon and deaths are not unheard of, Mahoney said. In June 1994, 186 belugas ran aground in the upper inlet. There were no causalities in that case.

Some past strandings might have occurred when killer whales scared the belugas closer to shore, but most are caused by tidal extremes.

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