Greetings, NewsWatch readers: this is Tim Binder, the Vice President of Collection Planning at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. For many years, I’ve been involved with beluga whale conservation research in the field and here at home. Today I’d like to invite you to join me on a research expedition to the shores of Alaska.
Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) are at the apex of the food webs in their Arctic and sub-Arctic habitats. These northern environments are experiencing rapid ecological change due to climate change, increased human activity, and resource development. As a top predator that relies on sea ice, belugas are vulnerable to being impacted by these environmental disturbances.
The beluga whales of Bristol Bay, Alaska, live in an area that is under pressure from development opportunities for offshore drilling, mining, and other natural resources industries. In order to understand how such activities might impact the currently healthy beluga population, we need to gather data that can act as a baseline for future research.
Little is understood about wild beluga’s nutritional needs, population health, or exposure to contaminants. Until recently, most studies involving wild belugas used limited information from stranded whales or individuals harvested for food in subsistence communities. The small sample sizes have made it difficult to address stress, disease exposure, immune status, hematology and other analyses. It’s also challenging to study wild belugas because of the remote field sites, which are predominated by extreme tides, harsh weather, limited laboratory capacity and expensive logistics.
In 2008, Shedd and other leading accredited aquariums and research partners traveled to the Nushagak River which feeds into Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska to test out new protocols to gather information about the health and wellbeing of belugas in this region of the world. These protocols were modeled after well-established techniques developed by beluga care experts at Shedd and other North American zoos and aquariums. We successfully conducted physicals and collected other data on 18 whales and attached transmitters to monitor their movements in the bay.
Now we are back in the field to resume this project, adding to the baseline information gathered in 2008 to advance our understanding of the health of beluga whales that rely on the Nushagak River for their survival. The information gathered from these efforts will help us understand impacts to beluga whales from changes in their environment and will help guide efforts to apply the techniques we develop and refine to the management of other more endangered beluga populations elsewhere. Stay tuned for more updates from the shores of southwest Alaska.