The Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership (AKBMP) is a collaboration between several organizations that offer opportunities for volunteer citizen scientists to contribute to endangered beluga monitoring efforts in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. Together we design standardized scientific monitoring protocols, train volunteers to support monitoring efforts, and coordinate shore-based beluga monitoring activities at various sites throughout Cook Inlet. Check out our Team page to find out who makes this happen.
Beluga monitoring by community science has been occurring in Cook Inlet for a number of years and began with the Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge’s Beluga Survey (in collaboration with Defenders of Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries) that took place from 2008-2012. By 2017, a new pilot project commenced at the Twentymile River using citizen science to explore beluga and boat activity during anadromous fish runs and by 2018, a similar project was underway at the base of the Kenai River. In June 2019, the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership (AKBMP) formed to establish a better foundation to support and strengthen beluga monitoring efforts and standardize monitoring procedures across new and existing sites. We are always open to additional organizations that may be interested in collaborating with us to facilitate shore-based beluga monitoring in Cook Inlet.
Our first collaborative monitoring season took place in fall 2019 (mid-August to mid-November) and was a huge success thanks to all of our wonderful collaborators and volunteers! We also host a spring monitoring season (our first was March 15th – May 15th, 2021). During these seasons, our partner organizations and volunteers monitor beluga activity from our established monitoring sites at Ship Creek (small boat launch), Mile Marker 95.3 pullout on Seward Highway (by Bird Point), Twentymile River, Kenai River, and Kasilof River. For exact locations and directions to our monitoring sites check out our Resources page.
As a community science monitoring volunteer you can collect important data on beluga distribution and habitat use in nearshore waters while building working relationships with professional researchers and scientists. The data you collect will be shared with researchers and federal agency personnel to inform ongoing marine mammal research and management activities and will be incorporated into NOAA’s Beluga Sightings Databases. If you are interested in how to become apart of the team check out of Volunteer page.
What is Community Science (aka Citizen Science)?
Citizen science is a form of open collaboration where members of the public participate in the scientific process to address real-world problems in ways that include identifying research questions, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, making new discoveries, developing technologies and applications, and solving complex problems (Source: NOAA).
Originally the word “citizen” was included in the term citizen science to differentiate data collectors from the general public and professionally trained scientists. The intention was not to describe the citizenship status of the volunteers participating in the data-collection initiative; however, we recognize that the use of this word is not inclusive. The Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program welcomes anyone who finds joy in belugas and wants to contribute to the conservation of the Cook Inlet population. Due to our ongoing work toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, we have transitioned from using “citizen science” to “community science.” Everyone is a valuable volunteer, no matter where you were born or how you came to Alaska. We value your contribution, and US citizenship is not a prerequisite for caring about the natural world. Additionally, our program is a communal experience that brings together Alaskan communities along the shores of Cook Inlet who are inspired and motivated to become better stewards for beluga whales. Community science better reflects how our program is successful through collaboration and teamwork.
Why Cook Inlet Belugas?
The Cook Inlet beluga is an important part of our regional ecosystem and is critically endangered. Following a rapid decline in abundance during the 1980s -1990s, the federal government designated the Cook Inlet beluga population as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 2002 and endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. Although no longer the target of commercial or subsistence harvest, the Cook Inlet beluga population has not recovered since being ESA-listed and it continues to face a number of ongoing human-caused threats. While scientists and researchers have studied this population since the 1970s, data on beluga distribution and seasonal habitat use throughout Cook Inlet is still lacking. By participating in ongoing monitoring efforts, you can help fill existing knowledge gaps and contribute to beluga recovery.
Where Do We Monitor?
We monitor at known beluga feeding areas, including the lower reaches and mouths of several rivers and streams that flow into Cook Inlet. During the ice-free months belugas intensively feed on anadromous fish and other prey at these sites, often during the rising tide which provides belugas great access to shallower habitat. These nearshore areas also support a number of human activities (such as boating and fishing) that have been linked to whale disturbance at other sites. Monitoring at known feeding areas improves our likelihood of observing beluga activity during our planned monitoring sessions, provides us an opportunity to gather data on beluga feeding ecology, and enables us to identify potential stressors that belugas may be exposed to during key feeding periods. Below shows more details about our five monitoring sites and check out our Resources page for direct directions to our monitoring sites.
OUR MONITORING SITES:
Located near downtown Anchorage, overlooking Knik Arm. We monitor from the small boat launch. Co-hosted by NMFS and Defenders of Wildlife.
Mile Marker 95.3 (Pullout along Seward Highway)
Located east of Bird Point overlooking Turnagain Arm. Hosted by Beluga Whale Alliance.
Located east of Girdwood, overlooking the river and the Arm. Hosted by Beluga Whale Alliance.
The Point (at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center)
Located in Portage at the AWCC, overlooking the Placer and Portage Rivers and the eastern most part of Turnagain Arm. Hosted by the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Located near mouth of Kenai River, we monitor from Spur View Picnic Ground. Hosted by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Kenai Peninsula College.
Located near mouth of Kaliof River, we monitor from the Kasilof Beach Dipnetting location. Hosted by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Kenai Peninsula College.
OUR BELUGA MONITORING IN THE NEWS
Alaska Native News
Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program Citizen Science, May, 2022 (Link)
Alaska Pubic Media
Volunteer help monitor Cook Inlet’s Endangered Belugas, March, 2022 (Link)
Glacier City Gazette Article
Making a Difference for Belugas, Aug, 2019 (Link)
Kenai Peninsula Clarion Article
Researcher Finds Many Cook Inlet Belugas Visit in Spring: May, 2018 (Link)
Radio Interview with KDLL in Kenai
Studying Cook Inlet’s White Whales with Citizen Science: May, 2018 (Link)
Glacier City Gazette Article
Beluga Whale Alliance Monitors Cook Inlet Belugas: Apr, 2018
Kenai Peninsula Clarion Article
Researcher Looks at Beluga Use of the Kenai River: Apr, 2018 (Link)