December 30, 2022
In the 1980s, Kotzebue Sound’s beluga population began to dwindle, from thousands to hundreds, and then to the dozens or fewer that visit the region now. Kotzebue is not alone. Although some stocks are healthy, beluga numbers have fallen off in around a half-dozen regions over the last 50 years. Decades ago, hunting, commercial whaling, and other influences pushed the whales toward the brink. Now, even after hunting has ceased in some places, stresses such as climate change, increased ship traffic, and chemical pollutants are a gathering storm that threatens to finish the job.
But some scientists think that understanding how the whales respond to these stresses could end up being as important as understanding the stresses themselves. Belugas, like chimpanzees, birds, humans, and many other animals, create cultures by passing knowledge and customs from one generation to the next. With climate change and other human activities reshaping the world at an alarming rate, belugas will likely have to rely on innovative cultural practices to adapt—genetic adaptation is simply too slow to keep up.
Read more: The Mystery of Alaska’s Disappearing Whales