Work opportunities have taken me to Alaska to study populations of belugas that are growing in size as well as those that are declining. In Bristol Bay, just west of the Alaskan peninsula, a known healthy and growing population of belugas resides in the waters near the town of Dillingham. This population has been chosen for collaborative studies on health, physiology, and life history to better understand anthropogenic and environmental threats, as well as vulnerabilities to climate change. Information from these studies may be used to compare to Cook Inlet belugas, which reside east of the peninsula in a similar estuarine habitat, but are a very small declining population.
Scientists from many different fields and specialties are involved in the study which entails capturing solitary belugas in Bristol Bay, collecting blood, breath, and fecal samples, as well as bacterial and viral culture swabs, skin biopsies, ultrasound measurements, hearing tests, and morphometrics. Satellite tags are attached along the dorsal ridge to collect data on movements and habitat use, and remotely deployed tags have been attached to several individuals to test the feasibility of applying tracking instruments without having to capture the animal. To date, 37 belugas have been captured, sampled, and released with satellite data being collected for up to 10 months on some individuals.
The results of the study have helped provide baseline health and physiological information on this population that can be compared to future sampled Bristol Bay belugas, and may shed light on factors that could be negatively impacting the recovery and growth of Cook Inlet belugas. These studies have demonstrated that large amounts of data can be collected from wild belugas, that yields vast information on beluga health, diseases, physiology, hearing, energetics, and life history parameters.
By Stephanie A. Norman
Marine-Med: Marine Research, Epidemiology, and Veterinary Medicine
Image Sources: Arctic Watch, NOAA, NMML