Beluga whale research from Aurora College

Beluga whales are a sentinel species, which means that their health reflects the health of the ecology that surrounds them. Dr. Lisa Loseto of the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans stated that the Belufa people in Beaufort have one of the largest known areas.
Photo courtesy of the Aurora Research Institute.

Even though populations in the delta are strong, more work is needed to help beluga whales adapt to climate change, according to a research review summarized by the Aurora Research Institute (ARI).

The presentation, which was sponsored in part by ArcticNET, was held on March 30th by speakers from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the University of Manitoba and the Joint Secretariat for the Inuvialuit Settlement Area.

Dr. Lisa Loseto of the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans noted that the ISR is home to the longest-running beluga whale research program in the world.

Belugas are a “sentinel” species, which means that their general health is used to track ecological changes in their range. If the whales experience a significant change in their wellbeing, it could indicate a bigger ecological problem.

“It’s a means of integrating food webs given its high trophic status,” Loseto said. “Its habitat can tell us a little about interactions within the system, as we see ice loss over time.”

Beluga whales are getting smaller and smaller

A live camera footage of the field test of a new method of tagging beluga whales using traditional harpoons equipped with tracking devices. Stinging the whale on the back is much less traumatic than the traditional method of catching the whale and surgically attaching a tracking device.
Photo courtesy of the Aurora Research Institute.

Scientists can track beluga populations thanks to documentation from Inuvialuit hunters and make notes of the pod they hunt each summer. According to Loseto, the hunters then pass them on to the researchers for analysis. Hunters also provide scientists with meat and bone samples that they can analyze at the cellular level.

A canary in the coal mine is the size of belugas. An analysis of adults from 1993 to 2008 by Lois Harwood found a loss of height in individuals.

“We’re seeing whales getting smaller,” Loseto said. “So this raises a lot of questions about how we can measure beluga health by condition.”

By looking at the thickness of the fat from killing whales, scientists can compare how much weight they are gaining. As it turns out, it fluctuates every year.

Scientists also document dietary changes. According to Loseto, most belugas caught by hunters in 2014 ate sand lances – a small fish that burrows into the ground. Usually the whales feed on cod. Loseto added trawlers noted that this year was a particularly bad year for cod, corresponding to a small percentage of bacon seen in whales. 2014 was also a year with unusually high levels of phytoplankton in the Arctic. It was also the year of the “blob”, when unusually warm surface water flowed north towards the Arctic.

Similar, but not identical, conditions were also prevalent in 2019, with beluga populations finding similar stressors. Further research will help understand how factors such as ice cover and shipping lanes affect whale health, Loseto said.

Immerse yourself in data

Twenty-one different populations of belugas live across the Arctic Circle, each with unique diving habits and physiology. It is estimated that the world population is just over 200,000. Loseto focused on the whales in the Beaufort Sea, which lay off the coast of Tuktoyaktuk in the summer. Scientists estimate these whales at 40,000, which means a healthy population. They are also some of the most widely traveled belugas and spend their time between the Beaufort and Bering Seas.

Two of Loseto’s PhD students, Enooyaq Sudlovenick and Luke Storrie, also presented their research results in their own work. Sudlovenick documented the mercury found in beluga skin and found that concentrations increased from 1982 to 2002 but decreased from 2002 to 2012.

Kayla Hansen-Craik learns how to make muktuk from Elder Clara Day in this 2013 photo. Loseto noted that much of the modern world’s knowledge about belugas stems from the relationship between scientists and the Inuvialuit who work with them.
Photo by Lisa Loseto, courtesy of the Aurora Research Institute.

A number of factors play a role, including size differences in beluga populations, local mercury concentrations, and the age of the animals. Sudlovenick added that more research will help scientists narrow down an exact cause.

Storrie monitored the frequency and location of beluga dives and found that the whales migrate south in winter. The researchers classified 90,211 dives as of 2018 into eight behavior types. Storrie added that during the winter the belugas made shorter and more frequent dives and spent more time on the bottom.

Storrie also found that the whales dive deeper and more frequently when the sun is shining. This could have an impact on when human activities are carried out in the Beluga area. Storrie said he hoped to determine the beluga’s foraging range so that shipping traffic would not disturb it.

Modern science, traditional knowledge

Traditional Inuvialuit knowledge helps improve modern whale marking techniques. Wildlife biologist Shannon McPhee said a pilot project of harpoons to identify beluga looks promising.

Current methods require scientists to acquire a tracking device and surgically attach it to the animal’s back, which is obviously traumatic. These methods are also expensive and out of date, over 30 years old, and require large crews and logistics to be successful.

The prototype marking device “Inuvik Dart” uses the traditional knowledge of the Inuvialuit beluga hunt to hold the device in the bacon of the animal. With the tracking device, scientists can learn a lot about how animals move and hunt all year round.
Photo courtesy of the Aurora Research Institute.

By using a harpoon from a boat to mark a beluga, scientists are reducing the impact of their research on the whales. The new program was developed after two years of consultation with the Inuvialuit Game Council and tested on site in 2018.

Initial tests revealed that the tags needed some modification to stay in the whales, which Inuvialuit hunters quickly solved by adapting old Speartip designs to the devices. Further work between the stakeholders led to improvements in the design.

“Beluga skin is arranged in vertical bars,” said McPhee. “This led to the design that uses an applicator to first puncture the skin and transport the anchor through the skin and bacon, but without leaving any sharp edges in the animal.”

The second round of testing exceeded expectations, according to McPhee. Tags recorded data for up to six weeks. The data quality was just as good as with the back assembly method.

McPhee is still unable to collect data as long as the historical method can collect data for up to six months. However, the new method offers a less invasive way of collecting short-term data.

Teamwork over great distances

Chukita Gruben concluded the afternoon with a discussion about how hunters used data acquisition units on behalf of scientists this summer.

“Three ARI technicians have put together berths for hydrophones and a soundtrack,” said Gruben. “They were deployed in June by the Inuvik Hunters and Trappers Community near Shingle Point, Shallow Bay and Hendrickson Island.”

Gruben said that hands-on experience not only helps scientists continue their work, but also expose new generations to the sciences.

“I feel like it’s not really a job because it’s something you really, really enjoy doing.”

Check out the Beluga Whales research presentation

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