Beluga whale swimming with calf. Photo: Chris Garner, Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson
About The Species Beluga whales are known for their white color and range of vocal sounds, earning them the title of "canary of the sea." They are very social animals, forming groups to hunt, migrate, and interact with each other. Beluga whales are found in the United States in Alaska and globally throughout the Arctic Ocean. They are at home in large rivers and can move between salt and fresh water. A thick layer of fat, called blubber, and thick skin helps them live in the freezing waters of the arctic and subarctic environment. Belugas also lack a dorsal fin so that they can swim under ice. Beluga whales are vulnerable to many stressors and threats, including pollution, habitat degradation, harassment, interactions with commercial and recreational fisheries, oil and gas exploration, disease, and other types of human disturbance such as underwater noise. Commercial and sport hunting once threatened beluga whale populations.
These activities are now banned, though Alaska Natives still hunt beluga whales for subsistence—the practice of hunting marine mammals for food, clothing, shelter, heating, and other uses necessary for preserving the livelihood of Native communities. Beluga subsistence harvest in the Cook Inlet of south-central Alaska are now regulated because of the lack of recovery in the area. Alaska Natives last hunted Cook Inlet beluga whales in 2005. All beluga whale populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
NOAA Fisheries has designated the Cook Inlet beluga whale population in Alaska and the Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River stock off the coast of Russia as depleted under the MMPA (i.e., they have fallen below their optimum sustainable population levels). In addition, the Cook Inlet distinct population segment has been listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Cook Inlet belugas are one of NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight—an initiative that includes animals considered most at risk for extinction and prioritizes their recovery efforts. NOAA Fisheries is committed to conserving beluga whales and protecting and rebuilding depleted and endangered populations. Our scientists and partners use a variety of innovative techniques to study and protect beluga whales. We also work with our partners to protect critical habitat for Cook Inlet belugas and engage the public in conservation efforts. Status In the United States, NOAA Fisheries has identified five stocks of beluga whales, all in Alaskan waters—the Beaufort Sea, Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, eastern Bering Sea, and eastern Chukchi Sea stocks. Each stock is unique, isolated from one another genetically and/or physically by migration routes and preferred habitats.
NOAA Fisheries' stock assessment reports estimate population size for stocks within U.S. waters. Worldwide, belugas may number in the hundreds of thousands; however, some stocks are small, numbering in the low hundreds. The endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population has declined by nearly 75 percent since 1979, from about 1,300 whales to an estimated 328 whales in 2016. The rapid decline and dire status of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population makes it a priority for NOAA Fisheries and its partners to prevent extinction and promote recovery. The population of Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River beluga whales, a stock in the eastern North Pacific off the coast of Russia, is estimated to be around 3,961 whales. In response to a petition, NOAA Fisheries conducted a status review of the stock and designated it as depleted under the MMPA in 2016.
Protected Status ESA Endangered