Encouraging signs of belugas returning to the Kara Sea | Polarjournal
The beluga whale(Delphinapterus leucas) can reach 5.5 meters in length, and belongs to a family of cetaceans with a more flexible neck. Image: Dafna Ben nun / Wikimedia Commons

Satellite images of the Russian coastline in summer 2016 revealed beluga whale populations in the far south of the Kara Sea. These images describe ( although without certainty) the first known signs of the species’ recovery in this region.

Are belugas in the Kara Sea making a comeback? British Antarctic Survey researchers Peter Fretwell, Hannah Cubaynes and Olga Shpak, an independent Ukrainian researcher, have managed to partially answer this question using high-resolution satellite images taken in the summer of 2016. They counted 1,147 individuals at the sea surface in a 500-meter band along the coastline of the Yugor peninsula and the Baydaratskaya bay. These data were published on June 22 in the journal Marine Mammal Science. Encouraging information for this little-studied species in Russia, whose comeback could be threatened by a number of factors.

Intense beluga whaling took place in the Soviet Arctic between 1954 and 1966, and again between 1977 and 1980. Up to 6,000 individuals of this white whale were killed in a single year, according to Soviet whaling records. Once a population has disappeared from a bay, the return of new groups is no easy matter. These whales are true to their birthplace. They live close to the ice edge in winter, and return to ice-free estuaries for reproduction in summer.

Belugas, which are found in all the Arctic seas, have been little studied in the Russian Arctic, except in the White Sea. Studies here have been limited to the area of the orange rectangle. Image: Camille Lin / Arcgis World Imagery

There is no long-term white whale monitoring program in Russia, which is why the scientists used satellite imagery. However, the authors warn of the possibility of confusion between narwhals, walruses and belugas. In fact, it was while working on walruses that the first belugas had been identified, and the idea for the study was born. In order to spot these mammals, calm sea conditions and the absence of clouds and ice are essential. Clusters of individuals are displayed then as white spots against a dark background.

The scientists’ ultimate goal would be a total estimate of beluga whale numbers in the Kara Sea, Novaya Zemlya and even the Barents and Laptev Seas. Given the vastness of this area, they decided to focus on a small part of the Kara Sea to test their method. The study area is located in the south-west, representing 30,000 km2 of sea surface, which is comparable to that of Lake Baikal.

Nowadays, mining activity is threatening the return of white whales. Oil and mining projects in the Russian Arctic are potential sources of disturbance and pollution affecting the beluga population. There are numerous examples such as the recent report in PolarJournal on an oils spill due to a burst pipeline near the Kolva River, which flows into the Barents Sea. In 2019, on the Kara Sea side, in the Baydaratskaya bay, a double gas pipeline at the Bovanenkovskoye mining facility (the Bovanenkovo Ukhta 2) ruptured. And yet, four years after the incident, the pipeline is still undergoing a maintenance program.

Gas compressor station at the Baydaratskaya complex in the bay of the same name on the west coast of the Yamal peninsula. Image: Gazprom

Although only 15% of the coastline of the Yugor Peninsula could be observed thanks to these images, the data suggest that belugas have reestablished themselves in the area. Between 1340 and 1842 belugas gather here in summer. But what about Novaya Zemlya? Are they passing through the strait between the Barents and Kara Seas? Scientists are faced with new questions after carrying out the largest-ever count in this region.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to study: Fretwell, P.T., Cubaynes, H.C., Shpak, O.V., n.d. Satellite image survey of beluga whales in the southern Kara Sea. Marine Mammal Science n/a. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.13044.

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