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Beluga whales visiting Alaskan river earlier, in greater numbers: researcher

Cook Inlet beluga whales are swimming up the Kenai River earlier in the year and in greater numbers than previously estimated, according to new monitoring of the endangered species.

Endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales are swimming up the Kenai River earlier in the year than estimated

A Cook Inlet beluga whale calf, left, and an adult breach near Anchorage, Alaska. New monitoring of the endangered species has found they are swimming up the Kenai River earlier in the year and in greater numbers than previously estimated. (Christopher Garner/U.S. Department of Defense/The Associated Press)

Cook Inlet beluga whales are swimming up the Kenai River earlier in the year and in greater numbers than previously estimated, according to new monitoring of the endangered species.

Kim Ovitz, a fellow in the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Sea Grant program, began recording beluga activity in mid-March from six sites between the Kenai beach and Cunningham Park at river Mile 6.5, the Peninsula Clarion reported.

Ovitz counted 367 whales in 66 days of observation, including 43 calves.

"The belugas we're observing spend a considerable amount of time in the Kenai River," Ovitz said. "When I came down here I thought they'd mill in the mouth of the river and then leave, and that's definitely not the case."

Kim Ovitz began recording beluga activity in mid-March from six sites between the Kenai beach and Cunningham Park. (Google Maps)

The beluga population is estimated at 328.

"Clearly, there's some overlap in the individual whales we're seeing," she said.

The belugas moved in groups of up to 27, with an average of fewer than nine individuals.

Estimates of beluga travel in the Kenai until recently depended on sporadic sightings reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages belugas.

The Kenai River has sort of been forgotten in the world of beluga research, and there really hasn't been a lot of dedicated research and monitoring in this area.-Kim Ovitz, University of Alaska Faribanks

Ground-based observers counted belugas in Turnagain Arm and Twenty Mile Creek and monitored the white whales in the Kenai River for the first time this spring.

"The Kenai River has sort of been forgotten in the world of beluga research, and there really hasn't been a lot of dedicated research and monitoring in this area," Ovitz said.

NOAA's designation of beluga critical habitat in the Kenai River ends at the Warren Ames Bridge near river Mile 5. Ovitz often saw beluga groups move beyond Cunningham Park and return downstream up to two hours later.

With fewer good monitoring sites, she did not discover how far upriver belugas move, she said.

Ovitz saw belugas almost daily until April 30 but none in May, the month when hooligan or eulachon, an oily fish presumed to be desirable prey for belugas, usually enter the river.

A fisherman holds a hooligan or eulachon caught in the Kenai River in 2011. The oily fish usually enter the river in May and are thought to be desirable to belugas. (Associated Press)

"That begs the question, 'What are they feeding on,' since hooligan didn't really start running in early May, and belugas are here in April and March," she said.

There also was also a reported beluga sighting at Cunningham Park in December.

"This may indicate that beluga timing in the use of this area could be shifting somewhat," Ovitz said. "They were historically observed during salmon and eulachon (hooligan) runs, and now we're seeing them earlier. Perhaps they're targeting different prey sources, or periods of low human activity, or may be taking advantage of different ice-in and ice-out dates."

Biologist Barbara Mahoney of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service said her agency could use precise information on when belugas enter the river for permitting purposes.

"It can help for example with our consultations we do for projects in the mouth of the Kenai that may have an effect on belugas," Mahoney said.

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