ESR 12:69-75 (2010)  -  DOI:

Range contraction in a beluga whale population

David J. Rugh*, Kim E. W. Shelden, Roderick C. Hobbs

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Mammal Laboratory, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA

ABSTRACT: The small, isolated population of beluga whales Delphinapterus leucas in Cook Inlet, Alaska, USA, has had a distinct contraction in range over the past 3 decades. This contraction is a function of a decline in abundance, evidently caused, at least in part, by high takes during unregulated subsistence hunting. During the 1990s, hunting resulted in takes of over 50 whales yr–1, all of which occurred in the northern portion of Cook Inlet. Concurrent with the decline in abundance, sightings became rare in the southern inlet, even though human impact had been relatively low there. Curiously, the density of whales in the northern inlet remained high in spite of the hunts. Significant changes in beluga whale distribution are evident across 3 periods: 1978–1979 (the earliest well-documented data); 1993–1997 (during the recorded decline in abundance); and 1998–2008 (when hunting was regulated and recovery was anticipated). The center of the summer range of beluga whales contracted northeastward into upper Cook Inlet from the 1970s to the 1990s (38 km; p = 0.042) and continued into the 2000s (total of 53 km; p = 0.022) with a longitudinal shift east towards Anchorage (the largest city and port in Alaska) occurring between the 1990s and 2000s (17 km; p = 0.025). The result is a reduced range (>7000 to <3000 km2) in all but the area with the highest degree of human disturbance. If and when the Cook Inlet beluga whale population begins to increase, a reoccupation of peripheral habitats may be the first indication of recovery.

KEY WORDS: Range contraction · Abundance decline · Beluga whale · Delphinapterus leucas · Cook Inlet · Human disturbance

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Cite this article as: Rugh DJ, Shelden KEW, Hobbs RC (2010) Range contraction in a beluga whale population. Endang Species Res 12:69-75.

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