Alaska Beluga Whale Committee—a unique model of co-management

  • Kathryn J. Frost Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Kailua-Kona, HI, USA
  • Tom Gray Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Nome, AK, USA
  • Willie Goodwin, Sr. Kotzebue, AK, USA
  • Roswell Schaeffer Kotzebue, AK, USA
  • Robert Suydam Department of Wildlife Management, Utqiaġvik, AK, USA
Keywords: Subsistence, Delphinapterus leucas, collaboration, Alaska Natives


The Alaska Beluga Whale Committe (ABWC) was formed in 1988 to conserve beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) and manage beluga subsistence hunting in western and northern Alaska in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). When the ABWC was formed, there was no consistently funded research or management programme for belugas in Alaska, and co-management was a new concept. The ABWC brought together representatives from beluga hunting communities; federal, state, tribal and local governments; and beluga researchers to develop and implement a programme to manage belugas. With funding from NMFS and others, the ABWC has collected data necessary for informed management decisions including the following: harvest data; aerial surveys of belugas in Bristol Bay and the eastern Bering and Chukchi seas; beluga tracking studies, including training hunters to attach transmitters; a pioneering genetics study of beluga stock identity that has facilitated collection of >2000 beluga skin samples; and a genetics-based mark–recapture study to estimate beluga abundance in Bristol Bay and validate aerial survey estimates. The ABWC is currently engaged in regional management planning in Kotzebue Sound and the eastern Bering Sea. It produces results that are scientifically valid, locally accepted and cost-effective and is an example of what can be achieved when Native hunters, scientists and managing agencies respect and listen to one another and work together. However, the current NMFS co-management funding process has fundamentally altered the relationship between NMFS and ABWC, with NMFS now acting more like a funding agency than a partner.


Download data is not yet available.


Adams M., Frost K.J. & Harwood L.A. 1993. Alaska and Inuvialuit Beluga Whale Committee (AIBWC)—an initiative in “at home management”. Arctic 46, 134–137.

Allen B.M. & Angliss R.P. 2015. Alaska marine mammal stock assessments, 2014. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFSAFSC-301. Seattle, WA: Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce.

Citta J.J., Frost K.J. & Quakenbush L. 2020. Aerial surveys of Bristol Bay beluga whales in 2016. Marine Fisheries Review 81, 98–104, doi: 10.7755/MFR.81.3–4.5.

Citta J.J., O’Corry-Crowe G., Quakenbush L.T., Bryan A.L., Ferrer T., Hobbs R.C. & Olsen M.J. 2018. Assessing the abundance of Bristol Bay beluga with genetic mark–recapture methods. Marine Mammal Science 34, 666–686, doi: 10.1111/mms.12472.

Citta J.J., Quakenbush L.T., Frost K.J. & Lowry L., Hobbs R.C. & Aderman H. 2016. Movements of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Marine Mammal Science 32, 1272–1298, doi: 10.1111/mms.12337.

Cruikshank J. 1998. The social life of stories: narrative and knowledge in the Yukon Territory. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

David-Chavez D.M. 2019. A guiding model for decolonizing environmental science research and restoring relational accountability with indigenous communities. PhD dissertation, Colorado State University.

Ferguson M., Frost K., Brower A., Wil-loughby A., Sims C. & Suydam R. 2018. Esti-mated abundance and distribution of eastern Bering Sea belugas from aerial surveys in 2017. In J. Lee & V. Helker (eds.): 2018 Alaska Marine Science Symposium. January 22–26, 2018. Hotel Captain Cook & Egan Center, An-chorage, Alaska. Pp. 207–208. Anchorage, AK: Alaska Marine Science Symposium.

Fernandez-Gimenez M.E., Hays J.U. Jr., Huntington H.P., Andrew R. & Goodwin W. 2008. Ambivalence toward formalizing customary resource management norms among Alaska Native beluga whale hunters and Tohono O’odham livestock owners. Human Organization 67, 137–150, doi: 10.17730/humo.67.2.008083027273n05q.

Fernandez-Gimenez M.E., Huntington H.P. & Frost K.J. 2006. Integration or cooptation? Traditional Knowledge and science in the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee. Environmental Conservation 33, 306–315, doi: 10.1017/S0376892906003420.

Frost K.J. & Suydam R.S. 2010. Subsistence harvest of beluga or white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in northern and western Alaska 1987 to 2006. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 11, 293–299.

Gadamus L. & Raymond-Yakoubian J. 2015. A Bering Strait Indigenous framework for resource management: respectful seal and walrus hunting. Arctic Anthropology 52, 87–101.

Gambell R. 1993. International management of whales and whaling: an historical review of the regulation of commercial and aboriginal subsistence whaling. Arctic 46, 97–107.

Givens G.H., Ferguson M.C., Clarke J.T., Willoughby A., Brower A. & Suydam R. 2020. Abundance of the eastern Chukchi Sea stock of beluga whales, 2012–2017. Arctic 73, 485–498, doi: 10.14430/arctic71592.

Gombay N. 2019. ‘There’s no one way of doing things’: wildlife management and environmentality in Nunavik. Hunter Gatherer Research 3, 651–675, doi: 10.3828/hgr.2017.33.

Harwood L.A., Innes S., Norton P. & Kingsley M.C.S. 1996. Distribution and abundance of beluga whales in the Mackenzie estuary, southeast Beaufort Sea, and west Amundsen Gulf during late July 1992. Canadian Journal Fisheries Aquatic Sciences 53, 2262–2273, doi: 10.1139/f96–180.

Hazard K. 1988. Beluga whale—Delphinapterus leucas. In J.W. Lentfer (ed.): Selected marine mammals of Alaska: species accounts with research and management recommendations. Pp 198–235. Washington, DC: Marine Mammal Commission.

Huntington H.P. 2011. The local perspective. Nature 478, 182–183, doi: 10.1038/478182a.

Huntington  H.P., Danielson S.L., Wiese F.K., Baker M., Boveng P., Citta J.J., De Robertis A., Dickson D.M.S., Farley E., George J.C., Iken K., Kimmel D.G., Kuletz K., Ladd C., Levine R., Quakenbush L., Stabeno P., Stafford K.M., StockwellD. & Wilson C. 2020. Evidence suggests potential transformation of the Pacific Arctic ecosystem is underway. Nature Climate Change 10, 342–348, doi: 10.1038/s41558-020-0695-2.

Huntington H.P., Suydam R.S. & Rosenberg D.H. 2004. Traditional Knowledge and satellite tracking as complementary approaches to ecological understanding environmental conservation. Environmental Conservation 31, 177–180, doi: 10.1017/S0376892904001559.

Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska 2020. Food sovereignty and self-governance: Inuit role in managing Arctic marine resources. Anchorage, AK: Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska.

Ivashin M.V. & Shevlyagin K.V. 1987. The white whale (Delphinapterus leucas Pallas, 1776): entrapment and escape in the ice of Senjavin Strait, U.S.S.R. Reports of the International Whaling Commission 37, 357–359.

Lowry L.F., Citta J.J., O’Corry-Crowe G., Quakenbush L., Frost K.J., Suydam R., Hobbs R.C. & Gray T. 2020. Distribution, abundance, harvest and status of western Alaska beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, whale stocks. Marine Fisheries Review 81, 54–71, doi: 10.7755/MFR.81.3–4.2.

Lowry L.F., Frost K.J., Zerbini A., DeMaster D. & Reeves R.R. 2008. Trend in aerial counts of beluga or white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in Bristol Bay, Alaska, 1993–2005. Journal of Cetacean Research Management 10, 201–207.

Lowry L.F., Kingsley M.C.S., Hauser D.D.W., Clarke J. & Suydam R. 2017. Aerial survey estimates of abundance of the eastern Chukchi Sea stock of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in 2012. Arctic 70, 273–286. doi: 10.14430/arctic4667.

Lowry L.F., Zerbini A., Frost K.J., De Master D.P. & Hobbs R.C. 2017. Development of an abundance estimate for the eastern Bering Sea stock of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Journal Cetacean Research Management 16, 39–47.

Meek C. 2009. Comparing marine mammal co-management regimes in Alaska: three aspects of institutional performance. PhD dissertation, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Metcalf V. & Robards M. 2008. Sustaining a healthy human–walrus relationship in a dynamic environment: challenges for co-management. Ecological Applications 18 Suppl., S148–S156, doi: 10.1890/06-0642.1.

Nadasdy P. 2003. Reevaluating the co-management success story. Arctic 56, 367–380, doi: 10.14430/arctic634.

O’Corry-Crowe G., Dizon A.E., Suydam R.S. & Lowry L.F. 2002. Molecular genetic studies of population structure and movement patterns in a migratory species: the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) in the western Nearctic. In C.J. Pfeiffer (ed.): Molecular and cell biology of marine mammals. Pp. 53–64. Melbourne, FL: Krieger Press.

O’Corry-Crowe G., Ferrer T., Citta J.J., Suydam R., Quakenbush L., Burns J.J., Monroy J., Whiting A., Seaman G., Goodwin W., Meyer M., Rodgers S. & Frost K.J. 2021. Genetic history and stock identity of beluga whales in Kotzebue Sound. Polar Research 40, article no. 7623, doi: 10.33265/polar.v40.7623.

O’Corry-Crowe G., Mahoney A.R., Suydam R., Quakenbush L., Whiting A., Lowry L. & Harwood L. 2016 Genetic profiling links changing sea-ice to shifting beluga whale migration patterns. Biology Letters 12, article no. 20160404, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0404.

O’Corry-Crowe G., Suydam R., Quakenbush L., Potgieter B., Harwood L., Litovka D., Ferrer T., Citta J., Burkanov V., Frost K. & Mahoney B. 2018. Migratory culture, population structure and stock identity in North Pacific beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). PLoS One 13, e0194201, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0194-201.

O’Corry-Crowe G., Suydam R., Quakenbush L., Smith T.G., St. Aubin D., Lydersen C., Kovacs K.M., Orr J., Harwood L., Litovka D. & Ferrer T. 2020. Group structure and kinship in beluga whale societies. Nature Scientific Reports 10, article no. 11462, doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-67314-w.

O’Corry-Crowe G.M., Suydam R.S., Rosenberg A., Frost K.J. & Dizon A.E. 1997. Phylogeography, population structure, and dispersal patterns of the beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas, in the western Nearctic revealed by mitochondrial DNA. Molecular Ecology 6, 955–970, doi: 10.1046/j.1365-294X.1997.00267.x.

Pinkerton E.W. (ed.) 1989. Co-operative management of local fisheries: new directions for improved management and community development. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Robards M.D, Burns J.J., Meek C.L. & Watson A. 2009. Limitations of an optimum sustainable population or potential biological removal approach for conserving marine mammals: Pacific walrus case study. Journal of Environmental Management 91, 57–66, doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2009.08.016.

Shelden K.E.W. & Wade P.R. (eds.) 2019. Aerial surveys, distribution, abundance, and trend of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in Cook Inlet, Alaska, June 2018. AFSC Processed Report 2019-09. Seattle, WA: Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce.

Singleton S. 1998. Constructing cooperation: the evolution of institutions of comanagement. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Stroeve J. & Notz D. 2018. Changing state of Arctic sea ice across all seasons. Environmental Research Letters 13, article no. 103001, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/aade56.

Suydam R., Lefevre J., Givens G.H., George J.C., Litovka D. & Brower H.K. Jr. 2021. Conservation and management. In J.C. George & J.G.M. Thewissen (eds.): The bowhead whale. Pp. 607–619. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.

Suydam R.S. 2009. Age, growth, reproduction, and movements of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the eastern Chukchi Sea. PhD dissertation, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington.

Suydam R.S., Lowry L.F., Frost K.J., O’Corry-Crowe G.M. & Pikok D. Jr. 2001. Satellite tracking of eastern Chukchi Sea beluga whales in the Arctic Ocean. Arctic 54, 237–243.

Toomey A.H. 2016. What happens at the gap between knowledge and practice? Spaces of encounter and misencounter between environmental scientists and local people. Ecology and Society 21, article no. 28, doi: 10.5751/ES-08409-210228.

Tyrrell M. 2008. Nunavik Inuit perspectives on beluga whale management in the Canadian Arctic. Human Organization 67, 322–334, doi: 10.17730/humo.67.3.47826252k0623352.

Wade P.R. 1998. Calculating limits to the allowable human caused mortality of cetaceans and pinnipeds. Marine Mammal Science 14, 1–37, doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.1998.tb00688.x.
How to Cite
Frost K. J., Gray T., Goodwin, Sr. W., Schaeffer R., & Suydam R. (2021). Alaska Beluga Whale Committee—a unique model of co-management. Polar Research, 40(S1).

Most read articles by the same author(s)