Exploring ecological changes in Cook Inlet beluga whale habitat though traditional and local ecological knowledge of contributing factors for population decline
The Cook Inlet beluga whale, one of five Alaskan stocks, is genetically distinct and geographically isolated from other populations. Historically, Cook Inlet whales were hunted commercially, for sport, and for subsistence uses. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 ended commercial and sport hunting; in 1999, subsistence hunting voluntarily ended. In 2008, Cook Inlet beluga whales were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act after annual aerial surveys indicated the population was not recovering as expected. A combination of natural and anthropogenic factors may be affecting this population's recovery. This study documented traditional and local ecological knowledge of Alaska Native subsistence hunters and fishers and commercial fishers through participatory research to explore ecological changes in Cook Inlet over time and to identify potential factors impacting this beluga whale population. Study results identified potential environmental and climate change factors including prey competition, health of beluga and their prey, and the presence of killer whales, the majority of which may indicate an ecosystem regime shift in the Cook Inlet region. Human-related factors included fisheries management and related prey reduction, water contamination, and anthropogenic-related noise. These results corroborate identified threats to beluga whales and also identify potential new areas of scientific investigation and management. As such this study demonstrates the value of incorporating traditional and local ecological knowledge into ongoing science and management.
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