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Keywords:

  • Megaptera novaeangliae;
  • individual recognition;
  • photographic identification;
  • genotypic identification;
  • skin biopsy;
  • abundance;
  • genetic analysis;
  • capture-recapture;
  • sex ratio;
  • migration;
  • North Atlantic Ocean

Abstract

Although much is known about the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, regional studies have been unable to answer several questions that are central to the conservation and management of this endangered species. To resolve uncertainties about population size, as well as the spatial and genetic structure of the humpback whale population in the North Atlantic, we conducted a two-year ocean-basin-wide photographic and biopsy study in 1992-1993. Photographic and skin-biopsy sampling was conducted of animals in feeding and breeding areas throughout most of the range of this species in the North Atlantic, from the West Indies breeding grounds through all known feeding areas as far north as arctic Norway. A standardized sampling protocol was designed to maximize sample sizes while attempting to ensure equal probability of sampling, so that estimates of abundance would be as accurate and as precise as possible. During 666 d at sea aboard 28 vessels, 4,207 tail fluke photographs and 2,326 skin biopsies were collected. Molecular analyses of all biopsies included determination of sex, genotype using six microsatellite loci, and mitochondrial control region sequence. The photographs and microsatellite loci were used to identify 2,998 and 2,015 individual whales, respectively.

Previously published results from this study have addressed spatial distribution, migration, and genetic relationships. Here, we present new estimates of total abundance in this ocean using photographic data, as well as overall and sex-specific estimates using biopsy data. We identify several potential sampling biases using only breeding-area samples and report a consistent mark-recapture estimate of oceanwide abundance derived from photographic identification, using both breeding and feeding-area data, of 10,600 (95% confidence interval 9,300-12,100). We also report a comparable, but less precise, biopsy-based estimate of 10,400 (95% confidence interval of 8,000-13,600). These estimates are significantly larger and more precise than estimates made for the 1980s, potentially reflecting population growth. In contrast, significantly lower and less consistent estimates were obtained using between-feeding-area or between-breeding-area sampling. Reasons for the lower estimates using the results of sampling in the same areas in subsequent years are discussed. Overall, the results of this ocean-basin-wide study demonstrate that an oceanwide approach to population assessment of baleen whales is practicable and results in a more comprehensive understanding of population abundance and biology than can be gained from smaller-scale efforts.