Cook Inlet Beluga research presented during local symposium

Peninsula Clarion

Several organizations which did research on the endangered population of Cook Inlet Beluga whales will be presenting the results of several projects during a Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Symposium Thursday and Friday at the River Center in Soldotna.

Using federal grant money, about $700,000, provided through the Marine Mammal Data Program, local organizations including the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, CIRCAC, and the Alaska SeaLife Center carried out research on factors including habitat, food sources, and environmental factors that could be playing a role in reducing the population of whales.

One group, LGL AK Research Associates, Inc., also carried out a photo-identification of the genetically distinct Cook Inlet belugas to track movement patterns, habitat, social structure, alongside reproductive and general health.

Susan Saupe, director of science and research for CIRCAC, said the goal of all of the research was to fill in data gaps in research on the population and help the state and federal government better understand how the beluga population could be restored.

CIRCAC designed a study to look at how contaminants could potentially be affecting food sources for the whales.

“In particular we were targeting hydrocarbon contaminants,” Saupe said. “In part because there was really no data on hydrocarbons and marine mammals in Cook Inlet and, really, basically in Alaska.”

The organization also wanted to understand better the winter habitat of the whales.

“In the summer they’re really concentrated in where they feed to follow the salmon into mouths of rivers and they kind of concentrate there and also they’re easier to see and observe when there’s no ice,” Saupe said. “There was a real lack of understanding of what food was available in the winter.”

A final report from the CIRCAC project is expected in the spring of 2014, however the results will be presented during the symposium.