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Keywords:

  • cetacean;
  • distribution;
  • endangered;
  • marine mammal;
  • oceanography;
  • prey

ABSTRACT

1. To help define areas and ecological parameters critical to the survival and recovery of the remnant population of North Pacific right whales, habitat use was investigated by examining all available sighting and catch records in the south-eastern Bering Sea (SEBS) and Gulf of Alaska (GOA) over the past two centuries.

2. Based on re-analyses of commercial whaling records, search effort, and resultant catches and sightings, waters of the: (i) SEBS slope and shelf, (ii) eastern Aleutian Islands and (iii) GOA slope and abyssal plain were important habitat for North Pacific right whales through the late 1960s.

3. Since 1980, the only area where right whales have been seen consistently is on the SEBS middle shelf. However, acoustic detections and single sightings have been reported in all other regions except the SEBS slope and oceanic GOA (areas where little, if any, acoustic and visual effort has occurred).

4. Sightings since 1979 were in waters < 200 m deep which may simply reflect the paucity of search effort elsewhere. From the commercial whaling era to the late 1960s, right whales were commonly seen in waters > 2000 m deep, indicating that their distribution is not restricted to shallow continental shelves.

5. North Pacific right whale sightings through the centuries have been associated with a variety of oceanic features, and there is little in common in the bathymetry of these regions. These whales appear to have a greater pelagic distribution than that observed in the North Atlantic, which may be related to the availability of larger copepods across the SEBS and GOA.