Researchers dive into studying Cook Inlet belugas with new grant

Oct 23, 2020

The Cook Inlet population of belugas has diminished by almost 80 percent since 1979, according to NOAA.
Credit NOAA

The chief scientist at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut is leading a pilot study on the stressors impacting beluga whales in Cook Inlet.

Tracy Romano and her research team received a $10,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to look into genes that help Cook Inlet belugas, a critically endangered population of whales, respond to environmental and manmade stressors.

“And so we’re trying to ground truth some of these molecular sequences and then look at the genes in the skin and compare skin biopsies that we have from the endangered Cook Inlet belugas, but then also some skin biopsies that we’ve archived over the years from relatively healthy belugas from the Chukchi Sea and Bristol Bay, Alaska," Romano said.

Chukchi Sea belugas and Bristol Bay belugas — two of five distinct Alaska beluga stocks — are relatively removed from many of the external elements plaguing Cook Inlet belugas, since they don’t come into as much human contact as their counterparts to the south. Comparing the health of the two will give Romano’s team insight into how beluga whales are uniquely affected by their shifting environment.

“There are so many stressors impacting belugas," Romano said. "And the Arctic is ground zero for climate change. So we’re really trying to understand how a rapidly changing environment is impacting the animals.” 

Romano said she’s concerned about the pathogens that have emerged as a result of climate change, as well as pollutants and sound exposure. Whales are also impacted by shipping traffic and entanglement.

The Cook Inlet population of belugas has diminished by almost 80 percent since 1979, according to NOAA, a drop of over 1,000 whales. Man made stressors could be one of the reasons Cook Inlet belugas aren’t moving off the endangered list. 

Researchers have to be extra careful when harvesting samples.

“When you’re studying an endangered population, it’s very difficult to get any hands on the animals," Romano said. "And so at Mystic Aquarium we’ve been working on noninvasive techniques to study health. And one piece of tissue that we can study, and we can get remotely from dolphins and whales and belugas, is skin.”

Romano is based in Connecticut but is collaborating with scientists from NOAA, including Paul Wade of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, to get skin samples from the animals as they’re swimming in the inlet. 

For this pilot study, researchers will be looking at a relatively small sample size — no more than 30, which includes Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay and Chukchi Sea belugas .

They’ve already begun archiving those samples. The next step will be to extract genetic material.

“What we’re hoping the results will show is that there are unique gene expression of certain sequences and certain physiologic pathways that will be unique to Cook Inlet belugas," Romano said. "What’s different about Cook Inlet belugas, and can we pinpoint those differences?”

If the team’s methods are successful and they can get more funding, they’ll be able to increase the scope of the study and include more samples.