On the lookout for Cook Inlet’s belugas

Cook Inlet’s belugas will be the target of a different kind of hunt this weekend.

On Saturday, communities on the Cook Inlet will be on the look out for the whales during this year’s Belugas Count. An initiative of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Fisheries, the second-annual event will enlist “citizen scientists” to observe beluga whale populations in different areas of the inlet.

The count was launched as part of a recovery plan for the Inlet beluga population, Verena Gill, NOAA wildlife biologist and Cook Inlet beluga recovery coordinator, said.

Gill said she wanted to engage the public and raise the profile of belugas in the effort to protect the inlet population. The public count piloted last year, and included an event at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage.

About 2,000 people turned out for the event, Gill said.

“It was really a wonderful experience and I realized just how much people love Cook Inlet belugas,” Gill said.

The program has expanded this year to include 14 designated viewing sites along the inlet, including Tyonek, Kenai and Homer, which has declared Sept. 15 Belugas Count Day. Hilcorps and Glacier Oil and Gas will also participate — counting belugas from their platforms.

The event will include Facebook Live broadcasts from different viewing stations and a livestream update from SeaWorld San Antonio featuring Tyonek, the beluga calf rescued from Cook Inlet mudflats in September 2017. A Beluga Festival will also take place at the Alaska Zoo following the count.

Participants in last year’s beluga count reported 255 sightings. Gill said the count isn’t intended to calculate the total number of belugas in Cook Inlet, but to get a better idea of their movements and behavior.

Once numbering as many as 1,300, Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered in 2008 and now number in the mid-300s, Gill said. The most recent head count of belugas, done in 2016, reported 320 belugas, she said. Over harvesting of belugas helped contribute to the decline in their numbers, and a moratorium on hunting in 2006 was intended to help the population recover. The number of belugas in the inlet, however, is still declining.

“I think it was a surprise when they didn’t recover,” Gill said.

Gill hopes to see public interest in belugas grow, and is working to find citizen scientists who would be willing to monitor beluga populations during other times of the year.

Ed Schmidt, president and board member of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, will be manning Kenai’s beluga count station at Leif Hansen Memorial Park on the Kenai bluffs.

Schmidt, who is an advocate for wildlife preservation, said he used to see lots of belugas in the inlet, but has noticed fewer in recent years. He hopes the count raises awareness among peninsula residents about the importance of protecting belugas.

“And I hope it gives people at least some more consideration — ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to see a whole lot more those?’ Because they are pretty special.”

2018 Belugas Count

Counting will take place at 14 stations surrounding Cook Inlet on Saturday, Sept. 15. In Kenai, spotting will take place at Leif Hansen Memorial Park from 8-11 a.m. Homer viewing will take place at the Baycrest Overlook from 7-10 a.m.

For more information visit the Belugas Count Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BelugasCount/.

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