Established in the summer of 2019, The Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program (AKBMP; originally the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership) is a community science NOAA Fisheries-led monitoring program that facilitates collaboration between organizations, communities, and individuals to collect standardized shore-based observational data on Cook Inlet beluga whales. NOAA partners with local organizations to co-host designated monitoring sites along the shores of Cook Inlet. Our current partners are the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Beluga Whale Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife Alaska, and Kenai Peninsula College. In addition, the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project is a collaborator with the program. NOAA and the partners implement standardized scientific monitoring protocols, train volunteers for shore-based beluga monitoring, and facilitate beluga monitoring sessions at designated sites. Data from this program are incorporated into existing databases and shared with researchers and federal managers to inform ongoing beluga research, conservation, and management efforts.
Why was this program created?
Systematic citizen science monitoring for Cook Inlet belugas first occurred in 2008 and continued until 2011 (led by Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge with collaboration from Defenders of Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries) and focused in Turnagain Arm around Anchorage. There was an 8-year gap before another standardized effort resulted in the formation the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership (AKBMP).
Several subsequent and separate efforts planted the seeds for AKBMP; in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers when a NOAA Fisheries Sea Grant fellow (Kim Ovitz) began a pilot project and in the Twentymile River in Turnagain Arm when a graduate student (Suzanne Steinert; Beluga Whale Alliance) conducted her research project with the US Forest Service. The AKBMP was subsequently formed when Kim Ovitz, Verena Gill (the Cook Inlet beluga recovery coordinator at the time for NOAA), and Suzanne Steinert realized the general interest in these individual efforts could grow into a more structured and continuous program and came together to discuss how to capitalize on the wave of public enthusiasm.
After the foundation of AKBMP was constructed, other organizations were invited to join, and AKBMP was launched as a multi-partner grass-roots citizen science project in 2019. NOAA Fisheries allocated funding for an AKBMP Citizen Science coordinator to unify the organizations into one standardized monitoring program, help revise existing citizen science monitoring protocols, and coordinate community science monitoring efforts Inlet-wide. The first AKBMP public monitoring season was fall 2019. In 2022, the partners agreed for the effort to transition to a NOAA Fisheries-led program and changed the name to the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program from Partnership. The organizations within AKBMP now partner with NOAA Fisheries to co-host sites along Cook Inlet.
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 and When 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 during spring and fall 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 six 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. Hosted by NMFS.
Mile Marker 95.3 (Pullout along Seward Highway)
Located east of Bird Point overlooking Turnagain Arm. Beluga Whale Alliance co-hosts this site with NMFS.
Located east of Girdwood, overlooking the river and the Arm. Beluga Whale Alliance co-hosts this site with NMFS.
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. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center co-hosts this site with NMFS.
Located near mouth of Kenai River, we monitor from Spur View Picnic Ground. Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Kenai Peninsula College co-host this site with NMFS.
Located near mouth of Kaliof River, we monitor from the Kasilof Beach Dipnetting location. Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Kenai Peninsula College co-host this site with NMFS.
OUR BELUGA MONITORING IN THE NEWS
Alaska Native News
Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program Citizen Science, May, 2022 (Link)
Alaska Public 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)