Public invited to help count Cook Inlet Beluga whales

Balsiger: Event offers a way for the public to support beluga whale conservation

NOAA Fisheries and partners are inviting the public to help spot and count Cook Inlet beluga whales on Sept. 9 as part of a free all-day citizen science celebration focused on endangered population, one of Alaska’s iconic marine mammals.

The count will take place at a dozen staffed stations along Turnagain and Knik Arms, from 9 a.m. to noon. From noon to 5 p.m. there will be free whale events at the Alaska Zoo, including family activities, games and more.

The goal is to bring together Alaskans to focus on the endangered whales, fostering local pride, awareness and stewardship, while mingling with biologists from federal and state agencies, environmentalists and university researchers concerned about the whales.

In October 2008, NOAA Fisheries listed Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Scientists estimate there are currently 300 to 400 beluga whales in Cook Inlet.

NOAA Fisheries has designated Cook Inlet beluga whales as one of eight species in the spotlight” – species in need of a concerted effort by individuals, agencies, groups, tribes, institutions, and organizations large and small to survive. The goal is to have partners and interested members of the public work together to recover this species, which is what the Belugas Count event is designed to do.

The recovery plan for these whales approved on Dec. 27, 2016, notes that the best available historical abundance estimate of 1,293 Cook Inlet beluga whales was obtained from an aerial survey conducted in 1979, and that the National Marine Fisheries Service has adopted 1,300 as the value for the carrying capacity to be used for management purposes.

The most recent comprehensive survey for Cook Inlet belugas from 2014 indicates a point estimate of 340 belugas, with the population continuing to show a negative trend since 1999. associated with a substantial, unregulated subsistence hunt.

“Belugas are a big part of what makes Cook Inlet a special place, but they need our help,” said Jim Balsiger, Alaska regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “This event is a great way for the public to get involved and support beluga whale conservation.”

NOAA Fisheries’ partners in this event include Alaska Department of Fish and fame, the Alaska Zoo, Alaska SeaLife Center, Beluga Whale Alliance, Cook Inlet Beluga Photo-ID Project, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U.S. Forest Service, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and the University of Alaska Kachemak Bay Campus.