Cook Inlet beluga whales live close to a national park, as well as Alaska’s largest city. Yet with 330 or so left in the wild, they're also an endangered population. Here’s why they matter.
An iconic landscape of fire, ice and bears, remote Lake Clark National Park and Preserve protects the ancestral homelands of the Dena'ina Athabascan people. This rich cultural wilderness, called Qizhjeh Vena in the Dena’ina language, is an intact ecosystem at the headwaters of the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. With just over 18,000 visitors per year, Lake Clark is a well-kept secret by Alaskans and remains largely unexplored due to a complicated mix of weather-dependent travel to get to it.
Within its volcanic ranges, and with more than 100 miles of coastline, Lake Clark holds a wildlife secret that few know about.
Endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales live in the adjacent waters of the park. These charismatic whales are born a dark gray and slowly transition to a pure white as adults. I’ve spent years observing and watching these enigmatic yet playful canaries of the sea, known for their high-pitched and friendly vocalizations. For years every spring and fall, I monitored their appearance at Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage with Beluga Whale Alliance, a local non-profit that plays a huge role in beluga conservation. We’d hear the belugas by the pier and see them spyhopping (bobbing their head out of water straight up and down), traveling and hunting fish. Little is known about their migratory patterns, yet we do know they pass throughout the Cook Inlet.
While these whales can be seen in downtown Anchorage and along Turnagain Arm about 20 miles away in the spring and fall, the whales also have been documented in the coastal waters of Lake Clark. Cook Inlet belugas as they are called, or CIBs for short, are loved by many residents of Anchorage and are celebrated yearly at the annual Belugas Count! event held in September by a consortium of federal and state agencies, volunteers and beluga lovers alike.
This year’s event on Saturday, Sept. 23, marks the 5th annual Belugas Count!, as well as the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Of the five different beluga populations in Alaska, CIBS are the only endangered group, with fewer than 331 left in the wild. They also are the population that lives closest to people.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has designated CIBs as a “Species in the Spotlight,” an initiative that prioritizes recovery efforts for animals considered most at risk for extinction. The state of Alaska has also designated a large section of the Cook Inlet as critical habitat for belugas to aid in the recovery.
But even with all these protections, CIBs continue to decline. While scientists are unsure of exactly why, some evidence points to habitat degradation, contaminants in the water, limited prey, strandings on the shore during tidal fluctuations, ocean noise, climate change and proximity to Anchorage, a bustling port city of 300,000 and the largest human population in Alaska.
Here are five reasons why Cook Inlet belugas matter and are worth protecting.
1. Belugas are culturally significant to the Indigenous people of Alaska.
The Native village of Tyonek, located across the Cook Inlet from Anchorage, has a close connection with the belugas. Its residents tell stories about the whales and how they come to visit every spring and fall — they know and recognize individuals in the population. The villagers are the “Tebughna,” which translates as “the Beach People,” and live a subsistence lifestyle that relies on the rich natural resources of the Cook Inlet. Hunting, trapping, fishing and whaling have always sustained them.
Due to the belugas’ population decline, those who hunted them voluntarily stopped in 2005. Unfortunately, the belugas have failed to recover, indicating there are other reasons why the population is not doing well.
2. They’re the only whales that reside in Cook Inlet year-round.
Cook Inlet beluga whales are hardy creatures and reside year-round in the inlet. Individuals can live 35-70 years.
Their white skin is used for camouflage, so they mix in with the ice floes. The humpback and orca whales occasionally come into the inlet — but none reside here all seasons as the belugas do.
3. They are important members of the ecosystem.
Belugas are a vital part of the Cook Inlet. They are opportunistic feeders and eat invertebrates such as octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, mussels, snails, sandworms and a variety of fish, including salmon, eulachon, cod and flounder.
4. People love to watch and photograph belugas.
The Cook Inlet is adjacent to Anchorage, and many people take advantage of the ability to view whales from the port’s small boat launch or from the drive along Turnagain Arm. The Cook Inlet Photo ID Project encourages tourists and locals to take photographs and submit them to its website so researchers can learn more about the belugas and build their database.
The project’s leaders use technology to analyze the submitted photos, identify individual whales in the population and track their lifespan. The goal is to conduct research that contributes to the recovery and conservation of CIBs and provide information and education to help manage human activities that might affect the belugas.
5. Beluga health can reveal the health of the ecosystem.
Belugas are about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. As the only large year-round predator in the Cook Inlet, they make an effective sentinel species because they accumulate pollutants and respond to environmental variability. Beluga blubber, behavior and diet and contaminants found in their livers and kidneys can indicate the quality of the marine ecosystem as a whole.
Combating possible threats
The opportunities to view beluga whales near Anchorage may one day change if their numbers continue to dwindle. In addition to the known threats, Cook Inlet belugas also face a major pending threat hanging over Lake Clark National Park: the possible development of a Johnson Tract gold mine, which would be located within park boundaries. Currently, exploratory mining is occurring on private land within the park in the Difficult Creek area, sampling for gold, copper and zinc. High Gold Mine, a Canadian company, hopes to expand runway capacity and roads and gain a permit to build a port in Tuxedni Bay — in critical beluga whale habitat.
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Further research and funding are needed to determine if this potential mine and port would negatively impact the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales, as well as other wildlife and people in the area. NPCA will continue to monitor the next steps of High Gold and any other company that may come in to develop this mine. We will also work with adjacent communities to ensure their voices are uplifted and heard and that their way of life is protected.
Our beluga whales already are few in count, and as indicator species they may tell us something about the health of our ecosystem we cannot see. We want a future where we can still see belugas at Anchorage’s port. If the belugas disappear, it may indicate that Cook Inlet is becoming so toxic that other creatures may become sick — impacting thousands of salmon, birds, bears and people that rely on its waters.
About the author
Jen Woolworth Alaska Program Manager, Alaska
Jen works out of the Anchorage, Alaska office. Before joining NPCA Jen worked as a park ranger in several areas in Utah and Alaska.