PUBLISHED: 5:53 PM on Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Scientists ponder how changing climate will impact Arctic whales
Alaska's coastal communities have long experienced the presence of whales, whether as summer visitors in Southeast or as targets of winter subsistence hunters in the Arctic.

Last Saturday, after Sitka WhaleFest participants spent a morning searching for humpbacks, they turned their attention to the north, where marine mammals are experiencing and responding to the effects of a rapidly changing ocean.

Katie Spielberger photo
  Killer whale researcher Craig Matkin of Homer, bottom left, talks with WhaleFest participant Jim Simard of Juneau on a whale-watching cruise during Sitka WhaleFest.
Above the Arctic circle, the tradition of whaling for subsistence meat is integral to the culture - and survival - of Native coastal villages such as Point Lay and Barrow.

Craig George, who has lived and worked as a wildlife biologist in Barrow for 30 years, has seen first hand the "remarkable retreat" of ice.

"It's a very different ocean now," he said. "We're in serious trouble in a lot of our coastal communities."

Bowhead whales are the only baleen whales that don't migrate to tropical waters during part of the year. They are clearly adapted to living in icy waters, from their thick blubber to their peaked crown, which can crack ice and allow them to breathe.

"I want you to think about (this)," George said to the audience gathered at Harrigan Centennial Hall. "This is an ice-adapted cetacean. In the absence of ice, how well will they fare?"

George and others have observed changes in the movements of bowheads. Bowheads that formerly summered in the Bering Sea now summer in the Canadian Arctic and spend winters in the Bering Sea. He suspects they may be changing their movements to avoid overheating.

"Bowheads are so well insulated, when they exercise they may have heat load problems," he said.

For now, though, bowheads may be able to do just fine in a warming Arctic. Their layer of blubber is so thick they may be able to skip an entire year of feeding and survive, George said.

"They may actually be one of the animals, at least initially, that's going to do alright," George said, adding however that, "We're headed into an uncertain future. If you believe in model predictions, we're going to lose our sea ice pretty soon."

Beluga whale researcher Robert Suydam presented a model predicting that the only remaining summer ice in the Arctic by 2040 will be just off the coast of Greenland and Canada. The changes that affect whales are not just the warmer waters, but an increased human presence in the Arctic, in the form of industrial activity such as drilling and shipping - along with accompanying sounds.

"All these different stressors, all these different pressures are going to work together in some way that we don't really understand at this point," Suydam said. "It we want to ... mitigate (these impacts), we need to understand what these impacts might be."

There are five different beluga populations in Alaska, and each is faring differently. While Cook Inlet belugas have been listed as endangered, the Bristol Bay beluga stock has been growing 6-7 percent annually, Suydam said.

Belugas in areas like the Beaufort Sea are unaccustomed to sounds of human industry and have been scared off by ice breakers 50 miles away, but belugas in commercial fishing areas like Bristol Bay are used to the sounds of boats.

Belugas and other whales can adapt to changing environments, but it remains to be seen in what ways and how quickly.

It is becoming easier to chart the behavior of belugas - they can be relatively easily tagged with satellite transmitters. In communities that hunt belugas, such as Point Lay on the Chukchi Sea, researchers may end up working hand in hand with Native whalers.

"It really is kind of a collaborative effort among the hunters and the scientists," Suydam said. "Hunters don't typically (kill) all the belugas they bring into the lagoon, so it's a good opportunity for scientists to capture and tag them."

Being able to spy on belugas through satellite transmitters will help understand potential changes in beluga movements. The results may help understand what the future holds for whales like the beluga - and the humans who depend on them for food.

"The Marine Mammal Protection Act (also) protects subsistence hunting of marine mammals," Suydam said. "The federal government has to consider both protected animals and the hunters who rely on them."