Why Are Alaska’s Whales Disappearing?

Alaska's whales disappearing

Why Are Alaska’s Whales Disappearing?

Whaling has largely fallen out of favor as a food and fuel source in the modern world. For those who still adhere to traditional ways, whaling still serves as a vital means of survival. Native tribes such as the Iñupiaq have relied upon the migration of the beluga whale to their shores for generations. Times are steadily changing, however, thanks in part to numerous factors both ecologically and environmentally.

The beluga has proven to be an unsustainable food source for the native peoples of Alaska. It is a problem that has its roots in a deeper-reaching issue. Let’s take a moment to analyze the facts of why Alaska’s whale population has dwindled.

A Brief History of a Dwindling Whale Population

While the beluga has served as a primary food source for the native Iñupiaq of Alaska for untold generations. The problem itself reaches back to the 1980s. This isn’t a localized problem by any means. Watchdog and governmental organizations noted a steep population decline as early as 1982. Thousands of whales saw their numbers dwindle to the hundreds. The following years saw this decline further, from hundreds to dozens.

This is a two-fold problem at its core, with one of the primary causes being overhunting. Over a dozen whale species call the Gulf of Alaska home on a seasonal or year-round basis. Six species are listed as endangered. Local populations of whales in the area have been in decline for the last fifty years. It is something that is all too visible in 2023.

Alaska's whales disappearing
Six whale species that call the Gulf of Alaska home are now listed as endangered.

©Christopher Michel /CC BY-SA 2.0 – License

Organizations like the NOAA have taken special care to provide monitoring and support for the growth of the population of these whales. Such efforts aren’t enough. Whales that once sustained communities in the region dating back thousands of years have been supplanted by animals like the bearded seal.

Global warming can also be held accountable. Rising temperatures could account for changing migration patterns. The NOAA has a number of hypotheses that might account for the disappearance of the beluga in Alaskan waters. These hypotheses remain unproven, sadly, much to the frustration of conservationists and locals alike.

The Impact of Whales on the Local Community

Alaska’s native peoples have a rich culture dating back to well before the expansion of European interests in North America. For indigenous peoples like the Iñupiaq, whale hunting has been a way of life. Communities have been sustained and allowed a sense of stability with the thaw of the ice and the arrival of spring.

As one can imagine, the dwindling sight of belugas in the waters near Alaska has led to a need to adapt to the times. The whales are still hunted and eaten by the local people, but it is not to the level needed to sustain a community. Some have taken to hunting other wildlife, augmenting the pool of locally available foods in rural Alaska. Rural Alaska isn’t known for its ability to sustain year-round crops, and the populace isn’t within most shipping lanes central to the state.

Alaska's whales disappearing
Beluga Point is an archaeological site and popular whale-watching spot along Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage.

©Amosbeecroft/CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

Commercial hunting vessels have done much to deplete the stock available to the Iñupiaq, and time will tell just how long-term the impact of this is on the people living in Alaska. The impact of the Iñupiaq’s hunting cannot be ignored, however, as other local tribes have taken action to preserve the remaining whales. Hunting still continues, even as the number of whales continues to dwindle.

What Can Be Done for the Whales?

The question of where to go next is a daunting one. Turning back the sands of time is impossible, but abating some of the damage could be feasible. Local whale populations have continued to dwindle, and in some cases adapt to current conditions. Changing weather patterns and hunting have led some scientists to speculate that the whales have changed their migration patterns, evading locations of the Gulf of Alaska to protest their numbers.

Nothing concrete has been determined from this, and for now, the clearest answer is conservation. Commercial whaling has been a controversial subject for some time, as well as its devastating impact on local marine populations. Whales serve a valuable place in marine ecology, and their departure from the region could greatly change the balance of the species still in place in the Gulf of Alaska.

Locals have taken their own steps with the establishment of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee. Conservationist steps have been proposed, limiting the hunting of belugas who might call the waters near Kotzebue home. Getting others to adhere to such a plan could prove daunting in itself. The local Tebughna tribe has gone so far as to cease hunting the local belugas, a process they started 20 years back. Others like the Iñupiaq tribe still continue in their old ways, as foregoing a consistent food source isn’t an option.

Alaska's whales disapperaring
Populations of whales in Alaskan waters, including the belugas seen here, have been in decline for the last fifty years.

©Brian Gratwicke/CC BY 2.0 – License

Life in Motion

Preventative efforts might not be enough to return the whales to Alaska’s waters. Beluga whales are longer-living animals and reproduction is much slower compared to other animals native to the area. A great change in the cultures of the indigenous people might be in store. While traditions may dictate certain sources of food are the norm, it might be a shifting and adapting narrative.

History and culture are far from rigid subjects, so those indigenous peoples may be seeing the start of a new chapter in their own lives. Beyond this, the loss of marine populations from the Gulf of Alaska is a dire proposition. Some headway has been made in raising awareness, but much of Alaska’s population is rural. For those in the contiguous United States, it may very well be a distant fact. There are individuals and organizations trying to raise awareness of the issues at play, even within the cities of Alaska.

Whether the beluga whales will return in full to Alaska’s waters remain to be seen. It could be a matter of decades before the efforts taken now are reflected in the population going forward.

Why Are Alaska’s Whales Disappearing? FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Do whales call certain areas home?

Whales are a fairly diverse subset of mammals, and as such, some can migrate to waters where food is plentiful while others may anchor themselves to a certain location. The beluga in particular is migratory species, with their arrival to Alaska coinciding with the melt of the ice in the spring. Certain pods of beluga whales will of course gravitate to certain locations, and those who call Alaska home for parts of the year aren’t returning in the same numbers.


Is there nationwide awareness of this issue?

Among the general population, very likely not. Organizations like the NOAA are of course aware of the dwindling population of beluga whales in Alaska. This also extends to biologists and researchers. The issue itself has been noted for more than 40 years, and steps to bolster the population began in earnest sometime in the 1990s. That aside, it is a more obscure but massive issue considering the potential impact it will have on the ecology of the waters surrounding Alaska.

Are there are other factors impacting the whale population?

Alaska is home to off-shore drilling platforms, and the seismic activity coupled with the noise may very be making a substantial impact on the local whale population. While commercial hunting has greatly diminished, drilling hasn’t. On the best of days, drilling can be an overwhelming sensory experience for those on the platform, and that’s not even taking into account the impact such a massive undertaking has on local wildlife.

Is there anything I can do to help?

Realistically, raising awareness and securing funding is probably the best course of action. This is just one facet of numerous environmental issues arising now, and the warning signs have been there for some time. Grassroots environmental efforts could very well shine a brighter light on this issue. It has been a known quantity for some time, but it isn’t quite too late to make a difference.

Do other whales call Alaska home?

Around fourteen species live around Alaska, whether it be through migration or year-round basis. The beluga is just one of many of these majestic creatures that call the Gulf of Alaska home.

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