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NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-369

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Beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas, satellite-tagging and health assessments in Cook Inlet, Alaska, 1999 to 2002

Abstract

Cook Inlet beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas, are currently listed as ‘Endangered’ under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) began monitoring this population during the 1990s after it was added to the ESA Candidate Species list in 1988. Monitoring efforts included aerial surveys, and in 1995, the first attempts to capture and satellite-tag whales. Working with Canadian scientists and Alaska Native subsistence hunters in 1995 and 1997, tagging methods were adapted to conditions in Cook Inlet (muddy water, extreme tides, and extensive mudflats), culminating in successful capture and tracking of a whale during the summer of 1999. This was followed by three more years of capture and tagging studies during late summer. Tags were attached to 18 whales between 1999 and 2002.

We do not have detailed accounts of these later tagging seasons (e.g., similar to the Appendix chronicling events from the 1997 and 1999 seasons in Ferrero et al. (2000). Litzky et al. (2001) summarized field operations for the 2000 tagging season, but no reports exist for 2001 and 2002. A reanalysis of the tag dataset (Goetz et al. 2012) led to questions about the captures and how tags were programmed during this time period. Given the Cook Inlet population has continued to decline (Hobbs et al. 2015, Shelden et al. 2017), and was listed as an Endangered Distinct Population Segment under the ESA in October 2008 (NOAA 2008), future recommendations for tagging will depend on lessons learned from these past projects. Lacking detailed field reports, we consolidated information from multiple sources.

Herein, we bring these varied sources together to provide a thorough documentation of the tagging operations undertaken in Cook Inlet each summer in 2000, 2001, and 2002. We include revised tag transmission timelines, monthly movement maps, dive behavior data, and ice-association graphs and maps for all whales (where applicable) tagged in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002. Whale locations were compared to sighting records (opportunistic and systematic) to determine how many whales were likely proximate to tagged whales. Animations of whale movements are available at http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/News/Cook_Inlet_Beluga_Range_Contracted.htm (accessed 17 Aug. 2016).

Beginning with the 2000 season, each whale underwent a health assessment at the time of tagging. Results from laboratory analyses of the blood, blubber, skin, and mucus samples are presented. These include results obtained for hematology and serum chemistry values, hormones, DNA extractions, blubber lipid composition, fatty acid profiles, stable isotope ratios, and persistent organic pollutant profiles. We also provide a follow-up to the tagging study, describing captured and tagged whales that have been photo-documented since 2005 by the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-identification Project (https://www.cookinletbelugas.com/).




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