New portal syncs up agencies’ beluga research

KENAI — There’s a lot of research happening on Cook Inlet beluga whales at any given time. Unfortunately, a lot of the data has stayed isolated, held by the entities that collect it.

The Alaska Ocean Observing System, an organization that monitors ocean and coastal conditions, is trying to link some of the data with a new online portal called the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Ecosystem Portal. Varying information about the endangered whales, ranging from sightings to ocean conditions in their habitats, is presented in a map available to the public on AOOS’s website.

Holly Kent, the program coordinator for AOOS, said some of the information — such as the records of sightings in Cook Inlet — has never been made available to the public before. Anyone can log onto the portal and use the data, mapped like color-coded honeycomb cells, showing the frequency of beluga sightings in any one area of northern Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm or Knik Arm.

The map allows for layers to be stacked, too, juxtaposing historical data from agencies like the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with other information pertaining to beluga whales, such as water temperature and the Marine Exchange of Alaska ship tracking information.

“(The portal) gives you more information on how the whales interact within their ecosystem, which gives you a handle on how to better manage that resource, when you’re also dealing with development going on,” Kent said. “This is the first time that agency people and resource managers have had the ability to look at all of these things in one place at one site.”

The public may find it interesting, too, Kent said. The data sets are available to be downloaded for research purposes as well.

“We’re just trying to make the information easier and more accessible to more people,” Kent said. “That includes agencies.”

The AOOS is one of a network of ocean observation system organizations in the Integrated Ocean Observing System, spanning from Alaska along the coasts of the U.S., reaching to Puerto Rico. Though these organizations receive funding from, and are overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they function separately, Kent said.

AOOS had collected significant data on the Cook Inlet beluga whales, which are considered one of eight species most at risk of extinction in the near future, according to a February announcement from NOAA. The agency recently issued a five-year plan for managing the belugas, which have an estimated population of about 340 as of 2014. The priorities listed in the plan include reducing human-generated noise in the whales’ habitat, habitat protection to encourage foraging and reproduction, research on the whales’ population characteristics, ensuring prey is available and improving the stranding response program.

Cook Inlet beluga whale managers from NOAA had initiated the process of accumulating information on beluga whale sightings from different sources several years ago, said Mandy Migura, the Cook Inlet beluga whale manager for NOAA’s Alaska Region. NOAA made contact with groups such as the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and the Port of Anchorage to use their data from beluga sightings, she said.

“There were all these different data sets of monitoring for beluga whales, but they hadn’t actually been compiled and made available … we wanted to go for the scientific sightings so we had some quality control over what was actually a beluga,” Migura said. “I’m not going to say it’s comprehensive of every potential data set that is out there, but these are the ones for the initial effort that we got permission to use.”

Migura said AOOS approached NOAA to use its data for the beluga whale portal as part of an ecosystem-based management. Although the map tool is useful, it will not be a single stop for all the information about Cook Inlet beluga whales — there are still caveats to the information available there, she said.

“I think this would be one tool in our toolbox,” Migura said. “We don’t expect that’s every single sighting. Just because there’s one area that doesn’t show beluga presence, it doesn’t mean there are no belugas there. (The map shows) just positive sightings. If there are not sightings, we can’t assume that means there’s no belugas there.”

The portal links together data and allows viewers to see different data points in layers, possibly illuminating connections that bear implications for the whales, Kent said. With NOAA’s data available on the portal as well as other data, agencies and researchers can network on how to best manage the whales, she said.

“We have now got (NOAA’s data) out on a map, open to the public, for lots of researchers and agency resource managers to do what’s called ecosystem based management, where they can manage that resource by using the ecosystem factors,” Kent said. “They can see if there’s any kind of connections.”

The Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Ecosystem Portal can be accessed at portal.aoos.org/cibw.php.

• This article first appeared in the Kenai Peninsula Clarion. Contact Peninsula Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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