Beluga whale: how many specimens are left?

Beluga is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN despite uncertainty about actual numbers and the prediction that if current conservation efforts cease, particularly with regards to hunting management

by Lorenzo Ciotti
SHARE
Beluga whale: how many specimens are left?

The beluga whale inhabits a discontinuous zone between 50° N and 80° N, particularly along the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. The southernmost populations are found along the estuary of the St. Lawrence River and the Saguenay River, in Québec, as far as the Atlantic, while the Amur River, the Santar Islands and the waters surrounding Sakhalin Island, in the Sea of Okhotsk represent the southernmost areas of the Pacific Ocean where these animals can be found.

As spring arrives, belugas move to shallow inlets such as bays and river estuaries, where they will spend the summer. These sites are discontinuous. A mother usually returns to the same place year after year. As the summer areas begin to ice over with the arrival of autumn, the belugas move in search of more suitable places to spend the winter.

Most of them travel in the direction of the pack's movement, staying on its edge during the winter. Others instead remain under the pack, surviving thanks to cracks in the ice from which to emerge to breathe. Belugas are also capable of finding pockets of air trapped under the ice.

Beluga is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN despite uncertainty about actual numbers and the prediction that if current conservation efforts cease, particularly with regards to hunting management, it would transition to threatened status within five years.

Before 2008 it was classified as vulnerable, one level worse than it is now. The IUCN has noted the stability of larger groups and improved census methods than previously indicate a larger population than previously estimated.

To prevent hunting, the beluga is protected by the International Moratorium on Commercial Whaling; nevertheless, the hunting of a small number of specimens is still permitted. Since it is difficult to estimate the exact population of beluga whales, due to the fact that their habitat also extends into inland waters far from the oceans, these cetaceans are likely to come into contact with oil and gas production industries.

To prevent beluga whales from coming into contact with industrial waste, the governments of Canada and Alaska are relocating sites where whale populations and waste come into contact. The beluga population currently existing in the wild is estimated at around 100,000 specimens.

Although this number is much higher than the number of specimens of other cetaceans, it has decreased compared to the period before the hunting of these animals began. There are believed to be 40,000 individuals in the Beaufort Sea, 25,045 in Hudson Bay, 18,500 in the Bering Sea and 28,000 in the Canadian Arctic.

The population in the San Lorenzo estuary is estimated at around 1,000 specimens. Disturbance caused by human activity poses an additional threat. While some populations are tolerant of small boats, others actively try to avoid boats.

Whale watching has become a popular activity in the St. Lawrence and Churchill River areas. Due to their predictable migration routes and high concentrations, belugas have been hunted by Arctic populations for centuries. In some areas hunting continues because it is still considered sustainable.

However, in some areas such as Ungava Bay and Greenland, indiscriminate hunting means that their numbers continue to decline. A phase of dialogue has begun between the Inuit populations and government bodies to try to bring beluga hunting back within sustainable levels.