Skip to Page Content
banner top art gif
office title gif
NOAA Fisheries
Office of Protected Resources
Acropora palmata thicket on Mona Island, Puerto Rico. Andy Bruckner, 1996Coho salmon painting, Canadian Dept of Fisheries and OceansMonk seal, C.E. BowlbyHumpback whale, Dr. Lou Herman
banner art gif
Species
Marine Mammals
Cetaceans
Pinnipeds
Marine Turtles
Marine & Anadromous Fish
Marine Invertebrates & Plants
Species of Concern
Threatened & Endangered Species
Critical Habitat Maps
  Contact OPR
Glossary
OPR Site Map

inner curve gif

Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

Status | Taxonomy | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution |
Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview |
Key Documents | More Info

  beluga whale
Beluga Whale
(Delphinapterus leucas)
Photo: NMFS National Marine Mammal Laboratory


Beluga Whale range map
Beluga Whale Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)


beluga whale critical habitat
Beluga Whale Critical Habitat
(Cook Inlet, AK)

(click for larger view PDF)


 

Status
ESA Endangered - Cook Inlet (Alaska)
MMPA Depleted - Cook Inlet (Alaska)*
MMPA - throughout its range
CITES Appendix II - throughout its range

* We received in 2014 a petition to designate the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River stock as depleted.

Taxonomy
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Monodontidae
Genus: Delphinapterus
Species: leucas

Species Description
Weight: average 3,150 lbs (1,430 kg)
Length: average 13 feet (4 m), but may reach 16 feet (5 m)
Appearance:  small and white, lack a dorsal fin, typically do not "blow" at the surface when breathing
Lifespan: 35-50 years
Diet: opportunistic feeders, belugas eat octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, mussels, snails, sandworms, and fishes
Behavior: extremely social animals that typically migrate, hunt, and interact together in groups of 10 to several hundred;
known as the "canaries of the sea," because they produce a vast repertoire of sounds including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks This link is an external site.

The beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is a small, white-toothed whale. Adult belugas may reach a length of 16 feet (5 m), though average size is 12-14 feet (about 4 m). Males may weigh about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) and females 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg). Beluga whales lack a dorsal fin and do not typically produce a visible "blow" when breathing at the surface.

Unlike other cetaceans, belugas can move their head up, down, and side to side, because their cervical vertebrae are not fused. This feature appears to be an adaptation to maneuvering and catching prey in muddy or ice-covered areas.

Beluga whales are covered with a thick layer of blubber that accounts for as much as 40 percent of their body mass. This fat provides thermal protection and stores energy. Belugas are unique among cetaceans in that they shed their outer layer of skin, or molt, each summer around July. They concentrate in shallow water where there is coarse gravel to rub against. The rubbing action helps remove the top layer of old yellow skin and reveal the new skin underneath.

Beluga whales mate in the spring, usually in March or April, in small bays and estuaries. Gestation lasts about 14-15 months, and calves are born between March and September, mostly between May and July. Females give birth to single calves (and on rare occasion twins) every two to three years on average. They give birth where the water is relatively warm (50-60° F or 10-15° C). Beluga calves nurse for at least 12 to 18 months, until their teeth emerge, at which point they supplement their diets with shrimp and small fishes. Most calves continue to nurse for another year after beginning to eat solid food. Female belugas are old enough to reproduce at around 4 to 7 years of age and males around 7 to 9 years. Their lifespan is thought to be about 35-50 years.

Belugas are extremely social animals that typically migrate, hunt, and interact together in groups of 10 to several hundred. They are known as the "canaries of the sea," because they produce a vast repertoire of sounds including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks This link is an external site.. They have a well-developed sense of hearing and echolocation, and are reported to have acute vision both in and out of water.

Belugas are opportunistic feeders, eating octopus, squid, crabs, shrimp, clams, mussels, snails, sandworms, and fishes, including eulachon, salmon, capelin, cod, herring, smelt, flounder, sole, sculpin, lamprey, and lingcod.

Habitat
Beluga whales are generally found in shallow coastal waters, often in water barely deep enough to cover their bodies, but have also been seen in deep waters. They seem well adapted to both a cold ocean habitat and a warmer freshwater habitat. Belugas can be found swimming among icebergs and ice floes in the waters of the Arctic and subarctic, where water temperatures may be as low as 32° F (0° C). They can also be found in estuaries and river basins.

Critical Habitat
In April 2009, NMFS solicited public comments and information in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (74 FR 17131 [pdf]) to designate critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales. In December 2009, NMFS proposed critical habitat [pdf] for Cook Inlet beluga whales. In April 2011, NMFS designated critical habitat [pdf] in the Cook Inlet.

Distribution
Beluga whales are circumpolar in distribution. Beluga whales inhabit the Arctic and subarctic regions of

  • Russia
  • Greenland
  • North America

Specifically, they inhabit the Arctic Ocean and its adjoining seas, including the

  • Sea of Okhotsk
  • Bering Sea
  • Gulf of Alaska
  • Beaufort Sea
  • Baffin Bay
  • Hudson Bay
  • Gulf of St. Lawrence

During certain times of the year, belugas may also be found in large rivers, such as the Yukon, as they seem to be unaffected by salinity changes.

Population Trends
In the U.S., there are 5 distinct stocks of beluga whales--all in Alaska:

  • Cook Inlet
  • Bristol Bay
  • Eastern Bering Sea
  • Eastern Chukchi Sea
  • Beaufort Sea

Of those, the Cook Inlet is the only endangered population. It is the most isolated stock; genetic samples suggest these whales have been isolated for several thousand years. The Cook Inlet stock has been severely reduced in numbers over the last several decades. NMFS estimates this population numbered as many as 1,300 in the late 1970s. The current estimate is about 325 beluga whales in the Cook Inlet.

The other 4 stocks are considered stable or have not exhibited a decreasing trend in numbers. Population size estimates from the most recent Stock Assessment Reports are available on our website.

Threats

Historic--

  • harvest, for skin/leather
    • Belugas are the only cetacean with skin thick enough to be used as leather when tanned
  • legal subsistence harvest in the Cook Inlet
    • Subsistence harvest is the only factor that can be identified as influencing the decline of the Cook Inlet population from 1994-1998, when 67 whales per year were harvested, prompting the "depleted" designation under the MMPA; the lack of recovery of the population was a factor that contributed to the endangered listing. Since 1999, the Cook Inlet beluga harvests have been limited to no more than 2 whales per year.
    • The other 4 stocks have levels of subsistence harvest that do not threaten their survival
Current
  • For belugas in the Cook Inlet, increased development/ human activities in the Cook Inlet lead to potential threats, such as
    • shipping
    • oil and gas production and transport
    • indirect and direct adverse effects from commercial fishing gear (e.g., gillnets) and operations
    • pollution
    • habitat destruction and alteration
    • harassment due to increasing commerce and recreation in Cook Inlet
    • noise

Conservation Efforts
NMFS developed a Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whales [pdf] that details many proposed and current conservation actions. The plan sets a goal of a minimum population of 780 animals before NMFS would no longer consider the Cook Inlet stock depleted. Achievement of this goal is expected to take until at least 2038. Management of the Alaskan Native subsistence fishery in Cook Inlet occured through a Cooperative Agreement between NMFS and the Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council. (Note: CIMMC was disbanded by unanimous vote of the then CIMMC member Tribes' representatives on 6/20/2012.)

A co-management agreement is in place for the native subsistence fishery for the other 4 stocks of beluga whales. These groups set harvest limits and other requirements to ensure conservation of the species.

Regulatory Overview
On March 3, 1999, NMFS received two petitions to list the Cook Inlet population of beluga whales as endangered under the ESA. The petitioners requested that we issue an emergency listing under section 4(b)(7) of the ESA, designate critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales, and take immediate action to implement rulemaking to regulate the harvest of these whales.

In May 2000, NMFS designated Cook Inlet beluga whales as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, at that time, the agency determined that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population was not threatened or endangered under the ESA. But, because this stock did not show significant evidence of recovery thereafter, NMFS initiated a second Status Review in the spring of 2006.

In April 20, 2006, the Trustees for Alaska petitioned NMFS to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as threatened or endangered under the ESA. NMFS evaluated the petition and conducted a status review.

In October 2008, NMFS determined that beluga whales in the Cook Inlet needed protection under the ESA, and, on October 22, 2008, listed the population as endangered.

In April 2009, NMFS solicited public comments and information in an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to designate critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales. In December 2009, NMFS proposed critical habitat [pdf] for Cook Inlet beluga whales. In April 2011, NMFS designated critical habitat [pdf] in the Cook Inlet.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date

Petition to Designate the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River Stock of Beluga Whales as Depleted

79 FR 28879 05/20/2014
Final Critical Habitat Designation for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales 76 FR 20180 04/11/2011
  • Proposed Critical Habitat for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales
74 FR 63080 12/02/2009
  • Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Designate Critical Habitat for Cook Inlet Beluga Whales
74 FR 17131 04/14/2009

Final Rule to List Cook Inlet Beluga Whale as Endangered

73 FR 62919 10/22/2008
Conservation Plan for Cook Inlet Beluga Whale n/a 10/2008
70 FR 12853 03/16/2005
Long-term Harvest Limits for Cook Inlet DPS 73 FR 60976 10/15/2008
2008 Status Review for Cook Inlet n/a 04/2008
n/a 10/2008
71 FR 14836 03/24/2006
6-Month Extension Regarding Petition to List the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale DPS Under the Endangered Species Act 73 FR 21578 04/22/2008
Proposed Endangered Status for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale "Distinct Population Segment" (DPS) 72 FR 19854 04/20/2007
90-Day Finding for a Petition To List the Cook Inlet population as Endangered under the ESA 71 FR 44614 08/07/2006
Depleted Designation for Cook Inlet population

65 FR 34590

05/31/2000

Stock Assessment Reports n/a various

More Information

Updated: July 15, 2014

NOAA logo Department of Commerce logo