Trend in aerial counts of beluga or white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in Bristol Bay, Alaska, 1993-2005

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Lloyd F. Lowry
Kathryn J. Frost
Alex Zerbini
Douglas DeMaster
Randall R. Reeves


Thirty-eight aerial surveys of beluga or white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) were conducted in Bristol Bay, Alaska, during six different years between 1993 and 2005. Belugas were sighted mainly close to shore in the upper parts of Nushagak and Kvichak bays, as well as along the coast between these bays and in the lower parts of major rivers. Data from 28 complete counts made in good or excellent survey conditions were analysed for trend. Counts ranged from 264 to 1,067. The estimated rate of increase over the 12-year period was 4.8%/year (95% CI = 2.1%-7.5%). Such a rate of increase suggests that either the population was below the environmental carrying capacity in the early 1990s or, alternatively, that factors that had been limiting population increase were alleviated after that time. A review of possible changes in human-caused mortality, predation and prey availability did not reveal a single likely cause of the increase. Among the factors that could have played a role are recovery from research kills in the 1960s, a modest decline in subsistence removals and a delayed response to increases in Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) abundance in the 1980s. The positive growth rate for this population shows that in recent years there has been no substantial negative impact of human or natural factors, acting either alone or in combination, and there is no need for changes to the current management regime

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