Beluga researcher Kim Ovitz (center, with sunglasses) and a group of volunteer whale-watchers look for belugas in the Kenai River on April 14, 2018 at Cunningham Park in Kenai, Alaska. 11 signed-up volunteers and several more casual ones helped Ovitz with her observations, which began March 15 and will continue until May 31. Her preliminary results suggest that a large portion of Cook Inlet’s estimated 328 belugas travel the Kenai River with the tides in early spring. (Photo courtesy of Rickard Sjoeberg).

Researcher finds many Cook Inlet belugas visit Kenai in spring

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to clarify numbers that apply to beluga sightings, rather than individual whales.

New monitoring of belugas in the Kenai River suggests that the whales visit earlier in the season and in greater numbers than previously thought.

Before unregulated hunting in the 1990s dropped Cook Inlet’s beluga population to a few hundred whales, they were a common sight in the Kenai River. Grace Kautek said her grandfather, who moved to the Kenai Peninsula in the 1970s, recalls seeing them under what’s now the David Douthit Veterans’ Memorial Bridge in Soldotna.

“People who’ve lived there for the past 40 or 50 years, they were used to seeing belugas in the river,” said Kautek, a zoologist who now lives in Anchorage. “If you ask younger people or people who just moved there, they’re rather surprised. There must have been a shift over the past few years in their feeding grounds, or where the animals travel. It might also be a population shift, a different generation of whales that use these areas now.”

Estimates of how many belugas travel the Kenai River and when depended until recently on a sporadic collection of sightings reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that has managed the Cook Inlet population since its 2008 listing as an endangered species. While systematic beluga counts by ground-based observers have taken place in Turnagain Arm and Twenty Mile Creek, the Kenai River received daily beluga monitoring 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,” said Kim Ovitz, a fellow in the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Sea Grant program who in mid-March began recording beluga activity from six sites between the Kenai beach and Cunningham Park. “Studies have typically occurred at broader scales, maybe focusing on the entire inlet, but don’t really look at these fine-scale dynamics happening in a river mouth.”

The initial findings that Ovitz presented at a public meeting last Thursday at the Kenai Fine Arts Center suggest many of Cook Inlet’s belugas may feed in the Kenai River during early spring, entering and leaving with the tides.

In her 66 days of observation, Ovitz counted 367 whale sightings, with 43 sightings of calves. The belugas moved in groups of up to 27, with an average group of less than nine. Determining how many individual whales are included in these numbers would require tagging and tracking or photographing to identify individuals.   

Unfortunately, there is just no way to know how many individuals we’ve been seeing with the types of monitoring methods we’re using,” Ovitz wrote in a latter email.

The total population of Cook Inlet belugas is estimated at 328. 

When Ovitz was out of town for about a week, Kautek — who has observed whales and dolphins around the world as a research assistant — filled in for her. She watched a group of eight to ten whales, with a young calf, swim past Cunningham Park almost every morning, accompanied by seals.

In the Kenai River, NOAA’s critical beluga habitat designation ends at the Warren Ames Bridge, about river mile 5. Ovitz often saw beluga groups move beyond her farthest observing post at Cunningham Park — around river mile 6.5 — and return downstream up to two hours later. Ovitz said that with fewer good publicly accessible monitoring sites upriver of Cunningham Park, she didn’t discover how far upriver belugas move.

“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.”

Ovtiz started her watch on March 15. After seeing her first whale on March 23, she spotted belugas almost daily until April 30. However, she’s seen no whales in May, the month when hooligan — an oily fish presumed to be desirable prey for belugas in the Kenai — usually enter the river. Though she’s seen plenty of seagulls, seals and fishermen catch hooligan, the belugas appear to have left.

“That begs the question,” she said, “what are they feeding on, since hooligan didn’t really start running in early May, and belugas are here in April and March?”

In addition to the absent belugas in May, there was also a reported beluga sighting at Cunningham Park last 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 for permitting purposes precise information of when belugas enter the river.

“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. “If there’s flexibility in the timeline, it may be moved around to a time when belugas aren’t present.”

As for what the belugas are eating in the river, Ovitz said she’d posed the question to several fisherman. “Every single one has a different answer,” she said. These include early run kings, early hooligan, silvers, halibut and flounder.

Though her observations are ending soon, Ovitz, a social scientist who has based her research on the concept of a “social-ecological system” including both human and animal activity, is continuing to collect historical observations to get a better idea of whether the timing and abundance of belugas in the Kenai has changed, and how it may be related to factors such as ice-out dates, the strength of fish runs or boat activity. In addition to posting an online survey, Ovitz said she’s had long interviews with about a dozen long-time residents of the Kenai River area.

“One gentlemen suggested they eat grass along the banks of the Kenai,” Ovitz said. “Another recounted tales of seeing predation of belugas by killer whales, up by the (Warren Ames) bridge.”

Belugas are known to return to the river in September and October. This year the beluga researchers plan to do so as well, holding public beluga-counting events in Kenai, Anchorage, Homer and Tyonek on Sept. 15. Ovitz and Kautek plan to be part of those events. Longer-term, Ovitz said she’s talked with some conservation groups about the possibility of carrying on beluga monitoring in the Kenai.

“It’s been really interesting seeing this developed space that belugas still utilize,” Ovitz said. “Here we are in the most heavily fished river in Alaska, and there are belugas moving up river. Not only two miles upriver, but nine miles upriver. And the fact that that’s happening in this space that has undergone quite a few changes, I think is a novel social-ecological relationship, that people and belugas are existing in the same place.”

Reach Ben Boettger at bboettger@peninsulaclarion.com

A beluga splashes its tail in the Kenai River on April 2, 2018 in Kenai, Alaska. Between mid-March and April, beluga researcher Kimberly Ovitz observed 42 groups of up to 27 belugas traveling up and down the Kenai River, a habitat Ovitz said “has sort of been forgotten in the world of beluga research.” (Photo courtesy of Rickard Sjoeberg)

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