Changing Planet

Shedd Aquarium Participates in Beluga Conservation Research Program

Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

Greetings, NewsWatch readers: this is Tim Binder, the Vice President of Collection Planning at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. For many years, I’ve been involved with beluga whale conservation research in the field and here at home. Today I’d like to invite you to join me on a research expedition to the shores of Alaska.

Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) are at the apex of the food webs in their Arctic and sub-Arctic habitats. These northern environments are experiencing rapid ecological change due to climate change, increased human activity, and resource development. As a top predator that relies on sea ice, belugas are vulnerable to being impacted by these environmental disturbances.

The beluga whales of Bristol Bay, Alaska, live in an area that is under pressure from development opportunities for offshore drilling, mining, and other natural resources industries. In order to understand how such activities might impact the currently healthy beluga population, we need to gather data that can act as a baseline for future research.

Little is understood about wild beluga’s nutritional needs, population health, or exposure to contaminants. Until recently, most studies involving wild belugas used limited information from stranded whales or individuals harvested for food in subsistence communities. The small sample sizes have made it difficult to address stress, disease exposure, immune status, hematology and other analyses. It’s also challenging to study wild belugas because of the remote field sites, which are predominated by extreme tides, harsh weather, limited laboratory capacity and expensive logistics.

The Bristol Bay research team prepares for a day on the water.
The Bristol Bay research team prepares for a day on the water.

In 2008, Shedd and other leading accredited aquariums and research partners traveled to the Nushagak River which feeds into Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska to test out new protocols to gather information about the health and wellbeing of belugas in this region of the world. These protocols were modeled after well-established techniques developed by beluga care experts at Shedd and other North American zoos and aquariums. We successfully conducted physicals and collected other data on 18 whales and attached transmitters to monitor their movements in the bay.

Now we are back in the field to resume this project, adding to the baseline information gathered in 2008 to advance our understanding of the health of beluga whales that rely on the Nushagak River for their survival. The information gathered from these efforts will help us understand impacts to beluga whales from changes in their environment and will help guide efforts to apply the techniques we develop and refine to the management of other more endangered beluga populations elsewhere. Stay tuned for more updates from the shores of southwest Alaska.

The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District.
  • Kenneth Zydek

    Nice try at PR, Mr. Binder. I was so glad to learn that your attempt to import Belugas captured by Russia was denied.

    THREE of your original SIX Belugas died under your care. That’s a 50% mortality rate.

    You currently have FOUR Pacific White-sided Dolphins, but EIGHT have died under your…’care’. (In case you’re not good at math, that implies a 66% mortality rate.)

    How can you with a straight face call this ‘conservation’? (Especially considering that neither the Beluga Whale nor the Pacific White-sided Dolphin are on the Endangered Species List?)

    As a child, one of your divers used to sneak me behind the scenes, and I spent hours watching Chico, an Amazon River Dolphin, loll in a tank in which he could not stretch-out his body in any direction, let alone swim.

    Chico sat in one place, in one position for most of the day. I don’t know if your tenure at the Shedd has allowed you to witness the horrible conditions under which he was kept, but – if you didn’t see it, trust me – it was horrible, and dare I say INHUMANE.

    There is a growing public awareness that whales and dolphins, being sentient creatures whose primary sense is acoustic, should not be kept in tanks performing circus tricks for food.

    You are currently on ‘the wrong side of history’ where this issue is concerned, but it’s not too late!

    If you want to get on ‘the RIGHT side of history’, begin a program of releasing your marine mammals to the wild. Your compassion would earn the John G. Shedd Aquarium international acclaim.

    Not only that, your REVENUE could actually increase. YOU could be ‘the story’ of the aquarium that ‘saw the light’, and began a program to re-introduce captives to the wild.

    The tides are changing, so to speak, and pretty soon one aquarium or marine park will capitalize on the ideas I just proposed. (There’s A LOT of MONEY involved….think about it: tons of FREE PRESS, international GOOD WILL, an A+ rating from every conservation group in the World.)

    Mr. Binder, I apologize somewhat for my initial belligerent tone, but this this issue means a great deal to me.

    I know the whale/dolphin shows create a huge revenue stream, but I truly believe that if you ‘step outside the box’ for a moment, you might agree with my contention that releasing your whales could ultimately be the best decision you could make.

    I welcome dialog on this issue. Please respond.

    Thank you for your time,


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