Arctic Science
Journeys
Radio Script
1999

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Beluga Whale Committee

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INTRO: Ten years ago, biologists and Native Alaskan hunters teamed up to study--and protect--the Bering Sea beluga whale population. The story of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee is one of teamwork, foresight and success. On today's Arctic Science Journeys, a look at how scientists and hunters work together.

STORY: That's beluga whale chatter passing an underwater microphone. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Biologist Kathy Frost has heard belugas in the Canadian Arctic.

FROST: "The hunters call them sea canaries and they're wonderful, they're absolutely wonderful--really very vocal, and not only vocal, but really diverse in the sorts of noises they can make. They chirp and they groan and they grunt and they whistle, and they do it all the time under some circumstances."

Ten years ago, Frost and other biologists joined forces with Native Alaskan hunters to form the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee. Its purpose is to protect and manage beluga whales north of Alaska's Aleutian Chain. With a small federal grant and plenty of donated labor, the beluga committee conducts aerial surveys, genetic studies and satellite tagging projects. It also influences public policy through groups such as the International Whaling Commission. The Alaska Natives who hunt the beluga play an integral part in the process. They collect tissue samples that researchers study. Whale hunter Charles Saccheus is the harvest monitor in the village of Elim. He says the beluga committee helps prepare hunters to take DNA samples.

SACCHEUS: "When we go to our annual Alaska Beluga Whale Committee meeting, they give us some little black book with instructions on how to take DNA and stomach samples and the measurements on the beluga."

Saccheus says taking the samples is easy. He and Frost attended an international whaling meeting together last year. The information they presented offered more details on Bering Sea belugas than had ever been gathered before. That, Saccheus and Frost agree, is the power of hunter-researcher teamwork. In the Norton Sound area, where Saccheus lives and hunts, there are about 10,000 belugas.

SACCHEUS: "Before, we didn't know how many beluga whale there were out in our area, and I mean that's the best thing we ever did in time immemorial, I guess. It never did happen before, so this is a good thing for the scientists and also for the hunters."

Saccheus says most Natives like working with the scientists, sometimes even generating research leads. Frost says the Norton Sound hunters noticed autumn whales they hadn't seen in the spring. They recommended comparing the fall and spring populations.

FROST: "That was a question that, if the biologists had ever asked it, it would have taken us a long time to get around to it. But because the hunters were there and had an intimate familiarity with 'their' belugas, they could sort of jump-start the research project."

And Frost says interest in the beluga extends far beyond the Native and scientific communities.

FROST: "I think they do have a particular appeal. A lot of kids in the U.S. today grow up hearing "Baby Beluga" as children, "Baby Beluga in the Deep Blue Sea." They have a perpetual smile that makes them very appealing and very photogenic. And I think the more people learn about them, they're a fascinating animal."

Frost says the committee's mission is to preserve the beluga whale for myriad reasons. Helping maintain the traditional Native lifestyle is one, but so is simple enjoyment of the popular small white whale.

OUTRO: From the Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, this is Arctic Science Journeys. I'm Amy Mayer.


Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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