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The International Polar Year (IPY) is an international science initiative supporting an intense period of interdisciplinary research focused in polar regions occurring between March 2007 and March 2009. The IPY approved project described below develops a circumpolar view of the movements and habitats of beluga whales throughout arctic and sub arctic waters and involves collaboration between marine mammal scientists from all nations bordering the Arctic Sea. Results from this project will be available on the internet and will include maps of movements, hydrographic profiles, behavior and life history data and a synoptic baseline for future research and comparison among populations and their response to climate and habitat changes.

Formal Expression of Intent:

The beluga whale, an Arctic cetacean with a circumpolar distribution, occurs in habitats ranging from shallow brackish estuaries to deep offshore pack ice. They are an important subsistence species for many Arctic communities, attract great public attention both in aquariums and in their natural surroundings because of their spectacular appearance, and are good indicators of climate change due to their dependence on the timing of ice-formation and recession. Beluga whales are susceptible to changing patterns of production which cause shifts in prey distribution and timing and distribution of sea ice formation. This may result in changes in foraging strategies or increased risk of mortality in ice entrapments. With rapid changes predicted for the Arctic both for ice coverage and temperatures it is prudent to obtain a synoptic snapshot of the pattern and timing of beluga migrations across the Arctic. This project will instrument 100 beluga whales per year over three years in waters around Svalbard, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia. Free ranging beluga whales will be captured and instrumented with miniature satellite transmitters. Transmitters are programmed to last for a year to provide nearly complete coverage of the annual migration. Onboard sensors will also relay data on diving behavior and associated oceanic conditions. The research consortium consists of scientific representatives from all Arctic countries with resident beluga populations. Field campaigns will commence in 2007. Maps of the movements of each population of beluga whales will be displayed and updated daily on a public web site together with background information and photos from field work. The project will train young scientists during field campaigns and analysis. Movement patterns and dive behavior will be compared to remote sensing data on chlorophyll, sea surface temperature and sea ice extent. Longitudinal comparisons between populations occupying different regions and sea ice or production conditions will elucidate temporal and spatial differences in habitat use and the susceptibility of each population to changing Arctic habitats. The project will provide a circumpolar baseline for understanding regional resilience of a high Arctic predator to the impacts of climate change. The results will also be of importance for the local management of beluga whales as a subsistence resource and participation of local hunters will foster cooperation between scientists and natives.

Beluga Summering Aggregations

Belugas are known to aggregate in a large numbers of areas in the Arctic and sub-Arctic during the summer season, when they are accessible for tagging. This project hopes to tag representative animals from each of these groups and track them through one annual cycle. The map below depicts our current understanding of summering concentration areas. The number on each colored area corresponds with the number in the table.

#

 

Beluga Aggregation

1

 

West Greenland

2

 

North Water

3

 

Cumberland Sound

4

 

Hudson Strait

5

 

St. Lawrence River

6

 

East Hudson Bay

7

 

James Bay

8

 

West Hudson Bay

9

 

Somerset Island

10

 

Beaufort Sea

11

 

Chukchi Sea

12

 

Norton Sound

13

 

Bristol Bay

14

 

Cook Inlet

15

 

East Siberian Sea

16

 

Anadyr

17

 

Okhotsk Sea

18

 

Gulf of Sakhalin

19

 

Kara Sea

20

 

White Sea

21

 

Svalbard

Methods

Image below is an example of a beluga satellite tag attached to the dorsal ridge. Geographic positions are collected from individuals via polar orbiting satellites and movements can be documented for up to 12 months.

Beluga whales swimming Beluga whales swimming

Previous Results

Previous satellite tracking studies on belugas have resulted in an enormous amount of information on where whales go and what habitats they chose in many parts of the Arctic.

Participation and Funding

Participation is open to all interested beluga scientist, students and scientific organizations. Please contact Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen with your interest in attending the workshop or participating in the project. The organizers are seeking funding to cover the organizational and ARGOS download costs, and some of the tags and field work costs. The US NOAA Fisheries will provide web support. The intention of the organizers is to coordinate among existing and new projects funded through national, academic or other sources and use the organizational funding to put tags on beluga groups that are not covered by these other projects.

*NEWS*

An organizational workshop was held in December 2005 coinciding with the biennial meeting of the Society for Marine Mammology in San Diego, CA, USA. See full proposal for further information. The next Organization Meeting is planned for fall/winter 2006-07 in Quebec City, Canada.

International coordinator: Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, mhj@dpc.dk
USA: Rod Hobbs, National Marine Mammal Laboratory, rod.hobbs@noaa.gov
Norway: Kit Kovacs and Christian Lydersen, Norwegian Polar Institute
Canada: Steve Ferguson and Mike Hammill, DFO Canada
Russia: Dennis Litovka, Chukotka TINRO, Russia


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