Spatial Ecology of the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena Glacialis)
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Despite decades of protection, the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has failed to recover, primarily due to interactions with fishing gear and ship strikes. Right whales range along the U.S. east coast, foraging year round in the Gulf of Maine while a subset of the population travels to the South Atlantic Bight each year to calve. The habitat requirements of the right whale are poorly understood. I investigated the relationship between the distribution of right whales and physical oceanographic conditions in an effort to create predictive models of essential right whale habitats. Additionally, the distribution of right and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) relative to fixed fishing gear was examined to assess spatio-temporal overlap. Habitat preferences were assessed using aerial survey data of whale locations and a range of topological and satellite derived physical parameters including bathymetry, sediment type, sea surface temperature, thermal gradients and surface roughness. A suite of non-parametric quantitative techniques including Mantel tests, log likelihood functions, Generalized Additive Models, Spearman Rank Correlations and the Williamson's spatial overlap index were used to assess relationships between whales and habitat variables. Our findings indicate that suitable calving habitat along the east coast may extend much farther to the north than is currently recognized. Our model correctly identified several well documented current and historic calving grounds in the eastern Atlantic but failed to fully identify a heavily used calving area off Argentina, which is characterized by lower surface water temperatures than the other calving regions. In the Gulf of Maine, right whale distribution was correlated primarily with sea surface temperature, sediment type and bathymetry. Predictive models offered insights into right whale habitat preferences for foraging but failed to wholly capture the physical factors underlying right whale distribution. I found the relative density of right and humpback whales and fixed fishing gear in the Gulf of Maine to be negatively correlated in most seasons and areas. These findings demonstrate that the regular co-occurrence of high densities of whales and gear is not a prerequisite for entanglement. Prohibiting entangling lines in areas where whales are known to forage could substantively reduce entanglement.
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