Working together to better understand Alaska’s beluga whales

WWF worked with Kotlik and Emmonak community members to capture underwater audio of whales

Aeral view of Beluga whales swimming

The Eastern Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska is home to more than 12,000 beluga whales. At least, that’s the number that scientists know of. But this estimate only includes those whales that are spotted in the ocean. It doesn’t take into account any belugas that might be in the Yukon or Kuskokwim rivers—and Indigenous hunters in the region know that they often migrate upstream in search of food. 

That’s where a recent collaboration between the WWF-US Arctic Program and the Indigenous communities of Kotlik and Emmonak comes in. The pilot project is testing the use of hydrophones to detect belugas in the river in order to get a more accurate picture of how belugas use freshwater habitat—and to help ensure that these Arctic marine animals are protected.

Getting a sense of the real numbers

Beluga conservation efforts depend on an accurate count of whales. Indigenous hunters also need to know how many belugas there are so that they decide how many can be safely harvested. That’s why WWF is bringing together Western science and Indigenous knowledge to help answer questions that are important to all who care about belugas, such as: how many belugas are there and how are they adapting to changes in their ecosystem?

"It's an example of both scientists and Indigenous people having the same question that they want to answer, and that is, how many belugas are in this stock and how are they doing," says Elisabeth Kruger, WWF's Manager for Arctic Wildlife.

The challenge facing scientists and conservationists is finding a non-invasive method to detect belugas that spend time in Alaskan rivers. Normally, scientists depend on aerial surveys to come up with estimates. But this entails airplanes flying low over waterways where Indigenous people take part in subsistence hunting. The airplanes can scare away birds and animals that they need to hunt to live.

That’s how the idea of “listening” for belugas came about.

Listening for belugas in the Yukon's muddy waters

Belugas are culturally important to Alaska’s Yupik communities, and they are also critical to their food security as they play an essential part in their diet. Of the five beluga stocks in Alaska, mandatory harvest regulations have already been put in place for belugas in the Cook Inlet watershed. That has some communities in other regions concerned that similar hunting bans could be put in place—if conservation efforts aren’t stepped up.

The WWF-US beluga monitoring project is a way to try to avoid more bans by better understanding belugas and how their behavior is changing as their environment changes.

The Yukon River

Over 2,000 miles long, the Yukon River flows north and northwest from British Columbia across Canada’s Yukon territory, into Alaska, then west to Norton Sound on the Bering Sea. This area is part of the greater Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

As part of the WWF-supported project, acoustic recording devices, or hydrophones, were placed on the bottom of the Yukon River to see if it was possible to hear belugas in order to determine whether or not they are using the river at the same time as scientists are counting them in their ocean habitat.

Although a similar technique had successfully been used to monitor belugas in the Eklutna River in Cook Inlet, one of the unknowns was whether this type of equipment would work in the Yukon’s murky waters. 

Conditions in the Yukon River are very different from the Eklutna waters that flow into Cook Inlet. The Yukon is a very shallow, wide, and fast flowing river. Its bottom is also extremely silty. So, one of the big questions was whether beluga sounds could even be detected once the hydrophones were sitting on the river’s muddy bottom.

The important role of Indigenous knowledge

For the pilot project, WWF-US partnered with two Indigenous hunters from Kotlik and Emonnak: Marvin Okitkun and Brandon Kameroff.

With the help of an acoustician, two sites were chosen in the Lower Yukon. In the summer of 2023, two stations were set up on either side of the river at each site, with an underwater microphone placed on the bottom of the river to continuously record the sounds of the river.

"One thing that we're always questioning is science and what scientists see and what we know growing up with our local Indigenous knowledge," says Marvin Okitkun, Yup’ik hunter. "Scientists come and go all the time, but we're always here."

From June to September, Marvin and Brandon periodically checked on the equipment at the two sites, removing debris and entangled plant material from the lines anchoring the hydrophones. The memory cards from the hydrophones were collected at the end of the season and sent to the acoustician in Seattle, Washington to see if any sounds of belugas had been detected.

Above, Dana Okitkun, 14, helps his father, Marvin, monitor the hydrophones placed at one of the sites along the Yukon River.

But the WWF-supported pilot project is about more than just listening for belugas to understand how they’re using their habitat. It’s about relationship building. It’s an example of how communities, scientists, and conservationists can work together to design projects that support their shared interests.

"We're conservationists. We've always been," says John Unok, Yup’ik hunter and educator. "We want to get as much as is needed to make it through the winter, you know? But we don't want to over harvest something. And that's what we try to teach our kids."

Using lessons learned to support conservation

Over the four-month period, the pilot project clearly demonstrated that using hydrophones to detect belugas in the Yukon River works—and it is an approach that is both cost-effective and non-invasive. That’s good news for scientists and hunters trying to ensure that belugas continue to thrive in the future.

But this pilot project is just the beginning. More aerial surveys will be conducted in the region in the summer 2024 and WWF-US hopes to take the lessons learned from the pilot sites and expand the project.

"As conservationists, we value information. We value science. We also value indigenous knowledge," says Kruger. "In order to come up with appropriate conservation interventions, we need to know what's going on and we need to know how it's changing." 

Belugas were once abundant throughout Alaska’s waters. Today, Alaska’s Cook Inlet beluga stock has dwindled to a fraction of its historic estimate of about 1,300—despite decades of conservation efforts. The goal of the WWF-supported project is to make sure that Alaska’s other beluga stocks don’t suffer the same decline.

The data collected by the hydrophones could provide vital information to help answer critical questions about the beluga population in the region. Questions such as: As the ecosystem is changing, how are belugas responding? Is their habitat use shifting? Are they spending more time in the Yukon or traveling further upriver?

Ultimately, combining acoustic monitoring in the Yukon River with aerial surveys will result in a better understanding of belugas—and support better management and conservation of this population. And that’s good news for everyone.