Intra-season variations in distribution and abundance of humpback whales in the West Antarctic Peninsula using cruise vessels as opportunistic platforms
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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Original versionEcology and Evolution. 2022, 12 (2), . 10.1002/ece3.8571
Fine-scale knowledge of spatiotemporal dynamics in cetacean distribution and abundance throughout the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) is sparse yet essential for effective ecosystem-based management (EBM). Cruise vessels were used as platforms of opportunity to collect data on the distribution and abundance of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) during the austral summer of 2019/2020 in a region that is also important for the Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) fishery, to assess potential spatiotemporal interactions for future use in EBM. Data were analyzed using traditional design-based line transect methodology and spatial density surface hurdle models fitted using a set of physical environmental covariates to estimate the abundance and distribution of whales in the area, and to describe their temporal dynamics. Our results indicate a rapid increase in humpback whale abundance in the Bransfield and Gerlache Straits through December, reaching a stable abundance by mid-January. The distribution of humpback whales appeared to change from a patchier distribution in the northern Gerlache Strait to a significantly concentrated presence in the central Gerlache and southern Bransfield Straits, followed by a subsequent dispersion throughout the area. Abundance estimates agreed well with previous literature, increasing from approximately 7000 individuals in 2000 to a peak of 19,107 in 2020. Based on these estimates, we project a total krill consumption of between 1.4 and 3.7 million tons based on traditional and contemporary literature on per capita krill consumption of whales, respectively. When taken in the context of krill fishery catch data in the study area, we conclude that there is minimal spatiotemporal overlap between humpback whales and fishery activity during our study period of November–January. However, there is potential for significant interaction between the two later in the feeding season, but cetacean survey efforts need to be extended into late season in order to fully characterize this potential overlap.