For decades, Dr. Tracy Romano has led Mystic Aquarium and other scientists on annual visits to Alaska and other Arctic locations to monitor the health of beluga whales to determine the extent to which climate change, pollution, and other factors are impacting their well-being and conservation status. This work is critically important to humans, including the Alaska Natives who are permitted by law to take beluga whales and other marine mammals for subsistence use.
The work being done by Mystic Aquarium, comparing data on whales in human care and in the wild is helping to create a baseline of beluga whale health as a means to determine the effects of human activities. Mystic Aquarium researchers have been studying animals in our care for over 30 years, pioneering new techniques, including conducting neuro-immunology research, to study stress levels in addition to physiological research to understand diet and movement. The baseline information can be used to shape meaningful and worthwhile marine mammal protection regulations at the national and international level.
What has never been lost on Dr. Romano and her Mystic Aquarium colleagues is the cultural significance of this species to Native Alaska communities and the unexpected toll that beluga whale decline can have on these populations. During years of study, it became evident to Mystic Aquarium scientists that the gathering of these animals is deeply imbedded in the culture of those peoples living in the Arctic/Sub-Arctic.
The work that is being done in beluga conservation could not be accomplished if it were not for Dr. Romano’s ability to become a part of the native community to better learn about these animals from the people who have lived with them for generations.
The collaboration between scientists and natives in Point Lay is truly special.
Thanks to a relationship with colleague and friend Robert Suydam, who first visited Point Lay in 1992 as a wildlife biologist with the North Slope Borough, Romano had been granted me permission visit beginning in 1994. The collaboration has continued ever since.
When the community of Point Lay was asked how this group of scientists could give back to the community, “education for our youth” was the immediate response. After a year of Romano planning and consulting with village leaders, Robert Suydam, and Leslie Pierce, the Education Outreach coordinator for the North Slope borough as well as our local Mashantucket Tribal Nation leaders, the Mystic Aquarium Point Lay Mashantucket Educational and Cultural Exchange Program was initiated.
Recently, Mystic Aquarium hosted the Second International Workshop on Beluga Research and Conservation which convened indigenous community members, scientists, wildlife managers and policy makers for the exchange of knowledge toward a common goal of advancements in the field of beluga whale research and conservation.