Beluga Movements and Habitat Use in Bristol Bay

Principal Investigators Lori Quakenbush, (ADF&G), John Citta, (ADF&G), and Rod Hobbs, (NMFS)
Collaborators Bristol Bay Native Association, ABWC, NMFS
Participants Helen Aderman, Molly Chythlook, Nick Apokedok, Brian Apokedok, Gustie Tallekpallek, Ben Tinker, Fred Bartman, Albert Roehl, Tom Olsen, Myra Olsen, Albert Simon, Kathy Frost, Lloyd Lowry, Dan Vos, Barbara Mahoney, Bernie Lopez, Jim Woolington, Phil Carpenter


The Bristol Bay stock of belugas is one of the 5 stocks currently recognized in Alaska. This stock is similar to the Cook Inlet stock in that they occupy a river system with large tides and sandbars and numerous salmon runs.

Map of Bristol Bay beluga stock habitat

Project Goals:

1) to describe seasonal movements of tagged Bristol Bay belugas in relation to salmon runs, sea ice, tides and sandbars; 2) to build models that predict movements and to compare with similar models of movements for Cook Inlet belugas. (Goetz et al. 2007, 2012)

Satellite Tagging:

Between 2002 and 2011, 35 satellite tags were deployed on belugas in Bristol Bay. Tagging occurred near Levelock in 2002 and 2003. Tagging occurred near Dillingham in 2006, 2008, and 2011.

Beluga whales tagged in Bristol Bay between 2002 and 2011:

Year Tags Juv Adult Male Fem Unk Location
2002 5 4 1 3 2 0 Levelock
2003 5 0 5 4 1 0 Levelock
2006 5 1 4 0 2 3 Dillingham
2008 18 10 8 7 11 0 Dillingham
2011 2 1 1 0 2 0 Dillingham
TOTALS 35 16 19 14 18 3

Density Maps:

“Density maps” were generated to show where beluga locations were concentrated during the Sea Ice season (15 December to 15 April), Breakup (15 April to 15 June), Salmon season (15 June to 1 September), and Post-Salmon season (1 September to 15 December) (see maps below). The darker the color, the greater the number of locations in that area.

Summary as of Fall of 2012:

  • Belugas move most during winter and least during salmon runs.
  • Average daily movements do not appear to be related to the size of the salmon runs.
  • Belugas are more likely to shift bays if they are currently in a bay with low numbers of returning adult salmon.
  • We still need to develop models for comparison with the Cook Inlet stock.


For More Information:

Abundance of Beluga Whales in Bristol Bay

Principal Investigators Lori Quakenbush, (ADF&G), John Citta, (ADF&G), and Greg O’Corry-Crowe
Collaborators ABWC, NMFS
Funding ABWC, NMFS
Participants Nick Apokedok, Gustie Tallekpallek, George Wilson, Virgil Wassillie, Ben Tinker, Albert Roehl, Tom Olsyen, Helen Chythlook Aderman, Molly Chythlook, Anna Bryan, Letty Hughes


To see how the collection of skin biopsies from beluga whales compares with aerial surveys as a means of estimating abundance of the Bristol Bay stock of beluga whales. The idea is that skin samples can be used to genetically “fingerprint” the whales, or identify them individually. Sampling over multiple years would allow for a “recapture” of the same “fingerprint” or individual whale allowing for an estimate to made using mark-recapture analysis. Working with beluga hunters to find and get close to whales, skin samples are collected by poking whales with a biopsy tip mounted on a harpoon. Most skin samples were collected in the spring on the Kvichak River near Levelock in Bristol Bay.

Biopsy tip George Wilson and Anna Bryan helping with the biopsies

Between the years of 2002 and 2011, 324 beluga biopsies were collected and fingerprinted (or identified), and there were 52 recaptures. Using a POPAN model to estimate abundance, a preliminary estimate of 2482 belugas (95% confidence limits) with a range of between 1943 to 3218 belugas has been generated. There were 216 samples collected that have not yet been identified, and doing so will likely give us a better estimate of abundance for the Bristol Bay beluga stock.

The late Nick Apokedok Gustie and Louise Tallekpallek


  • Citta JJ, O’Corry-Crowe G, Quakenbush LT, Bryan AL, Ferrer T, Olson MJ, Hobbs RC and Potgieter B. 2018. Assessing the abundance of Bristol Bay belugas with genetic mark-recapture methods. Mar Mam Sci. doi:10.1111/mms.12472.

Bristol Bay Beluga Health Assessment

Principal Investigators Rod Hobbs (NOAA), T. Aran Mooney (for hearing tests, WHOI)
Collaborators ABWC, BBNA, NMFS-NMML, ADF&G, Alaska SeaLife Center, Alaska Veterinary Pathology Service, APU, Alaska Pacific University, Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
Funding NOAA, ABWC, Georgia Aquarium


  • To determine healthy population parameters for wild belugas.
  • To collect baseline population parameters for belugas in Bristol Bay.
  • To determine response of Bristol Bay beluga to seasonal and interannual changes in prey and habitat.
  • To measure human impacts on Bristol Bay beluga.

Cook Inlet-Bristol Bay Beluga Population Comparison Study

  • To compare between an increasing population (Bristol Bay) and a declining population (Cook Inlet).
  • To identify differences that may indicate problems in Cook Inlet.

Points of Comparison

  • Movements and dive behavior.
  • Habitat use.
  • Relative dependence on summer salmon feeding for total annual calories.
  • Annual caloric requirements for adults, sub-adults, pregnant and nursing females.
  • Types and prevalence of disease and parasites.
  • Human impacts and disturbance.


Capture and assessment of individuals in late spring and late summer to:

  • Estimate total blubber calorie stores in spring and fall.
  • Assess current health status of the captured whale.
  • Attach satellite transmitters.

Analyze movements and dive behavior to:

  • Assess habitat use.
  • Estimate annual energetic requirements.

For Bristol Bay study:

  • Captured and assessed belugas in May and September of 2008 and September of 2012.
  • 27 belugas captured so far.
  • Veterinarians collected blood and other samples and took measurements to assess body condition.
  • Ultrasound used to assess blubber thickness and a blubber biopsy was taken to determine caloric density.
  • Audiology (hearing test) conducted on 7 belugas in 2012.
Rod Hobbs and others conducting hearing test on beluga. Same type of test that is used on human infants Computer generating an audiogram (a graphical display of the hearing range of the beluga)

Future of Project:

  • Continue capturing belugas and collecting data
  • Record sounds of beluga habitat
  • Test directional hearing of belugas
  • Conduct behavioral studies in aquaria and in the wild
  • Map human and natural sounds in beluga habitat

Click here for satellite-tagging maps of Bristol Bay beluga combined with other beluga stocks.

Project Blog:


  • Norman, S.A., C.E.C. Goertz, K. A. Burek, L.T. Quakenbush, L.A. Cornick, T. Romano, T. Spoon, W. Miller, L.A. Beckett, and R.C. Hobbs. 2012. Seasonal hematology and serum chemistry of wild beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 48(1):21–32.
  • Thompson LA, TR Spoon, CEC Goertz, RC Hobbs, TA Romano. 2014. Blow Collection as a Non-Invasive Method for Measuring Cortisol in the Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas). PLoS ONE 9(12):e114062. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0114062.
  • Unal E, Goertz CEC, Hobbs RC, Suydam R, Romano T. 2018. Investigation of molecular biomarkers as potential indicators of health in wild belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). Marine Biology (2018) 165:182.
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