Cook Inlet beluga monitoring program underway

A citizen volunteer looks for belugas near Ship Creek.

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Researchers and citizens scientists have begun monitoring Cook Inlet belugas in an effort to better understanding the population of endangered animals.

The Cook Inlet beluga population, which was estimated at 1,300 animals in 1972, has remained under 350 whales since it was declared an endangered species in 2008.

"There's a lot that we don't know about these endangered whales, the Cook Inlet belugas. We don't always know where they are, when they are. We don't know why they're not recovering, but it's very important to understand what time of the year they are in certain places," Verena Gill, NOAA Fisheries Beluga Recovery Coordinator said.

To track the marine mammals NOAA and other partners are using both high tech equipment and old fashioned techniques.

In addition to surveying from boats and airplanes, the researchers use drones equipped to help them learn more about the animals.

Despite the advantages technology has brought, Gill says there's another piece to the puzzle that is just as important.

"There's only a few biologists. It's a big inlet. We need more eyes on the inlet, and we have all these people who are excited to help us, so we want to utilize that energy of those people to help us analyze where the whales are, when, how many, how many calves and so on," Gill said. "We fly surveys, we're out in boats, but that's just a small snapshot of what's going on."

Citizen scientists man five outlook posts ranging from Ship Creek to Kenai. The volunteers are trained in what to look for.

"It comes down to trying to capture information that's going to be useful," said Brian McGurgan, a volunteer in Anchorage. "So one of those things that you've seen us doing is writing down every time a plane flies over the water and just getting a sense for what kind of noise disturbance the whales are either acclimated to, or potentially disturbed by, and just collecting information that may be of value, and the value may not be immediately obvious."

In addition to the ongoing beluga monitoring partnership, NOAA and other partners will host the third annual Beluga Count on Sept. 21. The event is a free event to the public where people can learn and look for belugas at 15 staffed stations throughout Cook Inlet. You can learn more about the Beluga Count here.

Click here to learn more about the citizen science beluga monitoring program.

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