Beluga dead at river mouth — Juvenile whale entangled in educational fishery set net

By Jenny Neyman

Photos courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates, MMPA/ESA research permit No. 14210. Tamara McGuire, wildlife biologist with LGL Alaska Research Associates, has been documenting beluga whales in Upper Cook Inlet as part of a photo identification project. The project has been extended to the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Seen here are examples of some of McGuire’s beluga identification photos from the project.

Redoubt Reporter

Though an updated Cook Inlet beluga whale population survey isn’t going to be conducted until early June, there is one recently confirmed change to the 2011 population number, when a subadult beluga was caught in the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s educational fishery set gillnet near the mouth of the Kenai River on May 7.

“We were deeply saddened. This was not an intentional harvest,” said Sasha Lindgren, cultural director for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.

The whale was found the evening of May 7 in the tribe’s educational fishery net, about a mile south of the mouth of the Kenai off Cannery Road.

Lindgren said that the crew running the net was on the beach, noticed the whale and called authorities.

“We’re not exactly sure what happened, if the beluga was dead and got caught. It looks like it was dead and just it rolled up into the net with the surf action, so we’re thinking it was dead or had no strength, because normally they go right through a net,” she said.

Barbara Mahoney, with the National Marine Fisheries Service out of Anchorage, said the

Photos courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates, MMPA/ESA research permit No. 14210

cause of death wasn’t immediately clear. Representatives from the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward collected the whale May 8 and performed an autopsy.

“The cause of death is not known at this time, but tissue samples have been sent out for analysis,” Mahoney said. She said that it could take weeks for the necropsy samples to come back.

The whale was a male, 8 to 9 feet long, meaning it was a few years old and not yet full-grown. Lindgren said the educational fishery crew had not noticed other whales in the vicinity when the subadult was caught.

“Normally they chase the hooligan (into the Kenai River in the spring), and we haven’t gotten the hooligan yet, so everything’s kind of slow this year,” Lindgren said.

It isn’t unusual for belugas to be near the mouth of the Kenai this time of year, however, or even to be seen as far upstream as the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge on Bridge Access Road.

“Right about now, April or May, we hear about belugas in the Kenai. We have heard

Photos courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates, MMPA/ESA research permit No. 14210

third-hand about a group of whales above the bridge about a week or two ago, and we’re trying to get that confirmed. In the past we’ve had whales reported about this time, and then they kind of disappear in the summertime and return again in the fall,” Mahoney said.

She said that Cook Inlet belugas, while they can be found in deeper waters midinlet, tend to stick closer to shore, where commercial, personal-use and educational set net fisheries take place. However, reports of belugas caught in set gillnets are exceedingly rare.

“When we do our abundance surveys the first week of June we try to cover 100 percent of the coastline because that tends to be where we see the whales. But (the fishermen) say that the whales are smart. This was a young whale so maybe it was still learning, but the whales avoid the nets,” Mahoney said. “This is the first known mortality in our records for the last 25 years associated with fishing nets.”

Two other incidents of belugas entangled in fishing nets have been reported in recent years. In the mid-1990s a beluga was reported caught in a drift net, but was successfully released, and a few years back a beluga got caught in a set net in Nikiski, and also was released. This is the first reported beluga whale mortality associated with a fishing net in Cook Inlet.

“It’s pretty sad, especially since it was a baby. But I really don’t believe that it died in our net, because commercial fishermen are always talking about belugas avoiding the nets or going right through their nets,” Lindgren said.

The educational fishery, which is in its 23rd year, is permitted to operate two, 60-foot set gillnets for salmon starting May 1. Both can be on the beach, or one on the beach and one in the river. Fish caught cannot be sold. The tribe partners with other organizations and user groups to come participate in the fishery, with the tribe providing a fishing crew, which oversees the operation. Lindgren said it’s a cultural event as well as an educational opportunity.

“The first kings every elder in the tribe get a piece and then they go out to the members. It’s a focus point for the tribe. You go down there and see people you haven’t seen for a while, ‘How many grandkids do you have now?’ and that type of stuff. So it reaffirms their bonds with each other, and identity. Lots of people go down there and just sit around the fire. You might not be the person that’s holding the permit, it might not be your day to go get fish but it’s a day to go down there and visit your family,” Lindgren said.

Continuing research

With the return of spring and summer comes a reprise of field season for several research

Photos courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates, MMPA/ESA research permit No. 14210

projects regarding belugas. The Cook Inlet whales, identified as a genetically isolated stock, were listed as endangered in 2008. Their population was estimated to be as many as 1,300 in the late 1970s. Harvest of the whales was stopped in 1995, but their population still has continued to decline.

The NMFS’s population estimate in June 2011 was 284, down from the June 2010 estimate of 340. The decline has slowed, but the population still has not begun to grow, despite having the added protections — in designation of critical habitat area, for example — that an endangered listing entails.

Environmental groups are pushing for more measures to be taken. Just this month a lawsuit was announced, with the village of Chickaloon, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Water Advocacy challenging a permit issued by the NMFS allowing Texas-based oil and gas producer Apache Corp. to explore for oil and gas in Cook Inlet. The suit charges that Apache’s planned use of air guns, high-intensity seismic exploration and explosives could harm the whales, with the resultant noise disrupting their movements and feeding habits.

Meanwhile, research efforts continue to try to shed light on why the whales’ population hasn’t started to grow. Some of that research is ongoing in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, after $800,000 in federal funds was allocated to the borough about two years ago to be spent on research projects falling under three categories:

  • Improve knowledge of Cook Inlet belugas to determine factors that are limiting recovery.
  • Refine knowledge of Cook Inlet beluga habitat requirements.
  • Evaluate the impacts of anthropogenic activities on the beluga habitat.

The borough, not being experienced in beluga research, enlisted the assistance of staff with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It was very beneficial to us that staff at NOAA in Anchorage was a very close player with us throughout this process. They helped us draft and review the RFP, and we also included one of them in review committee,” said John Mohorcich, director of the Donald E. Gilman River Center.

The proposals were evaluated for how well they fit the priorities laid out in the RFP, the technical and scientific merit of the proposal, the overall management qualifications of those submitting proposals, and the proposed cost — though scientific merit outweighed cost considerations, Mohorcich said.

“This started under (Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey) and he always made it very clear that what we were pursuing here was good science. The scoring basically was adjusted specifically to make sure those projects actually were evaluated on the merits themselves,” he said.

Five projects were selected in 2011 and are ongoing:

  • The Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., was awarded $176,000 to analyze physical and biological data from Cook Inlet as it relates to the environmental and climatic parameters of belugas. Basically, it’s combing through, corralling and evaluating existing data and relating it specifically to the waters of the borough.

“It’s tough because they’ll pull in some of these studies and some of these parameters and nobody else had that magical political line running right down the middle of Turnagain Arm, so they’ll have to decipher a little bit through that data process what is pertinent to the borough,” Mohorcich said.

  • The Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council was awarded about $102,000 to take and analyze sediment samples in the near-tide areas of the borough’s coastline, and compare it to other sampling that has already been done.

“They’re trying to make a correlation, basically, if there’s some physical attributes in the inlet with the distribution of the fish (belugas eat) and therefore, we think, directing where the potential feeding grounds would be for the belugas,” Mohorcich said.

  • Another literature-related project, for $54,000, is being conducted by Alaska Ecological Research LLC, “looking to try to compile some similar methods analysis developed into databases that they can correlate, basically, to the belugas’ distribution,” Mohorcich said.
  • The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward got just over $65,000 to compile an oral history of habitat use of the inlet. (See related story, next post.)

“They really reached out and tried to identify a lot of residents and locals everywhere from Homer all the way up to the Kenai and Point Possession area. They did interviews, taped them, videoed them, and now they’re compiling that oral history,” Mohorcich said.

An exhibit of the oral history is set to open June 8, to coincide with National Oceans Day.

  • The remaining $237,000 went to LGL Alaska Research Associates to extend the

    Photos courtesy of LGL Alaska Research Associates, MMPA/ESA research permit No. 14210

    Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project to the borough. The project uses boat and shore-based photography to identify individual beluga whales and to study the distribution, habitat use and population structure of inlet belugas, according to LGL researcher Tamara McGuire.

The project has been ongoing since 2005 in Upper Cook Inlet, mainly around the mouth of the Susitna River and in Knik Arm. Photos of whales are taken and archived, and whales are identified by specific markings, such as from injuries that have healed but are still visible.

Over time, sighting histories are compiled for each known individual, and researchers are able to learn more about individual movement patterns, preferred habitat, social structure, how often individual mothers give birth and how long calves remain with their mothers, according to LGL.

“One of the things we do is go back and try to figure out who the mom is and who her calf is and then we try to track them through time to try to learn more about how long calves stay with their moms, how often moms are reproducing, what’s the success rate — in other words, are the calves dying off earlier than they should or are they maturing and living to reproduce themselves?” McGuire said.

Results are shared with NMFS, so expanding the project to the borough expands the knowledge base available to researchers.

“A big question we have is are the whales we see in the upper part of the inlet the same whales that you see in the Kenai River or are they a different subgroup? Are they feeding on the same things, are they being exposed to the same types of human activities or are they very localized?” McGuire said. “I really didn’t know if we’d see whales in the Kenai River anymore, because we received reports from people that live down there that they’re patchy, so I didn’t know if we’d be able to go down there in the boat and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go out at this time, on this date and see whales.’ I really thought we’d have a lot more days of no whales. But it seems that they’re there in the fall and spring. They might be there in low numbers but they’re still there, which is exciting to know that.”

McGuire asks that if anyone sees a beluga, they report it on the website, www.cookinletbelugas.com. There also are 24-hour hotlines for reporting stranded whales, or other marine mammals: 1-800-853-1964 for the NOAA Fisheries hotline, or 1-888-774-7325 for the Alaska SeaLife Center’s hotline.

Now is the time to keep an eye out for white in the water.

“The exciting part is we’re ice-free again and we can see these guys easier,” Mohorcich  said. “I’m looking forward to seeing them again. They’re always way cool, in my opinion, when we get to spot them out there.”

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