Alaska Beluga Whale Committee

The Alaska Beluga Whale Committee (ABWC) was founded in 1988 to ensure that beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) stocks in Alaska remained healthy and to forestall involvement of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in the management of belugas. The North Slope Borough (Alaska) Department of Wildlife Management contacted indigenous beluga-hunting communities throughout Alaska, as well as federal and state agencies, emphasizing the need to take action before a management crisis occurred. The IWC action to stop subsistence whaling of the bowhead whale in Alaska in 1977 was a vivid example of the consequences of being unprepared. Thus, the emphasis of the ABWC was to gather accurate harvest data, determine stock identities of belugas around Alaska, and develop a management plan to protect belugas and subsistence hunting.

Beluga whales—small, toothed whales that are white as adults and are distributed throughout the Arctic—are found in five stocks in the waters around Alaska: Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay, the Eastern Bering Sea, the Eastern Chukchi Sea, and the Beaufort Sea, of which the latter is shared with Canada and Russia. The migratory habits of the other stocks are currently under investigation. All stocks are hunted by Alaska Natives for subsistence purposes. The Cook Inlet stock is the only one known to remain in Alaska waters year round. In recent years, the Cook Inlet stock has declined sharply, leading to regulation of the subsistence harvest under the terms of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which permits limiting the hunt only if a stock is considered to be depleted. The other four stocks are considered healthy, the current harvests being biologically sustainable.

The ABWC had included representatives from the Inuvialuit region of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, Canada, for several years, and was then called the Alaska and Inuvialuit Beluga Whale Committee. Eventually, representatives of both Alaska and the Inuvialuit region agreed that in the absence of pressing management needs, the expense of a joint committee was too high. Since then, the ABWC and the Inuvialuit Game Council have continued to communicate and to cooperate on various research and management issues. Formal cooperation with the Russian Federation has not been pursued, partly because of the cost and partly because hunting in Russia is minimal. As with the Inuvialuit, the ABWC communicates with Russian hunters and government agencies on matters of research.

Since its inception, the ABWC has been highly successful in gathering harvest data and in promoting research on population levels, migratory behavior, and stock identity. In recent years, it has prepared a management plan and completed a formal co-management agreement with the US Federal Government. Members of the committee include tribally appointed representatives of the hunting communities, and representatives of the state and federal governments and the North Slope Borough. Due to a disagreement over the commercial sale of beluga products, the ABWC no longer includes representatives from the Cook Inlet area, although it has attempted to help resolve the management problems with that stock. The ABWC has held two science conferences, in addition to its annual meetings, and its members participate in the IWC, providing harvest and population information while continuing to resist IWC management of beluga hunting.

Henry P. Huntington

See also Beluga (White) Whale; International Whaling Commission (IWC)

Further Reading

Adams, Marie, Kathryn Frost & Lois Harwood, "Alaska and Inuvialuit Beluga Whale Committee—an initiative in at-home management." Arctic, 46 (1993): 134-137 Frost, Kathryn J. & Lloyd F. Lowry, "Distribution, abundance, and movements of beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas, in coastal waters of western Alaska." Canadian Bulletin of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, 224 (1990): 39-57 Huntington, Henry P., Wildlife Management and Subsistence

Hunting in Alaska, London: Belhaven Press, 1992 O'Corry Crowe, G.M., R.S. Suydam, A. Rosenberg, K.J. Frost & A.E. Dizon, "Phylogeography, population structure and dispersal patterns of the beluga whale Delphinapterus leucas in the western Nearctic revealed by mitochondral DNA." Molecular Ecology, 6 (1997): 955-970 Suydam, Robert, Kathryn Frost, Lloyd Lowry, Doug DeMaster & Marie Adams Carroll, Proceedings of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee First Conference on the Biology of Beluga Whales, April 5-7, 1995, Anchorage, Alaska, Barrow, Alaska: North Slope Borough and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1996

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