Spatial and temporal distribution of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in Cape Cod Bay, and implications for management


Nichols, Owen C., Robert D. Kenney, and Moira W. Brown
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Cape Cod Bay (Massachusetts) is the only known winter and early spring feeding area for concentrations of the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) population. During January–May, 1998–2002, 167 aerial surveys were conducted (66,466 km of total survey effort), providing a complete representation of the spatiotemporal distribution of right whales in the bay during winter and spring. A total of 1553 right whales were sighted; some of these sightings were multiple sightings of the same individuals. Right whale distribution and relative abundance patterns were quantified as sightings per unit of effort (SPUE) and partitioned into 103 23-km2 cells and 12 2-week periods. Significant interannual variations in mean SPUE and timing of SPUE maxima were likely due to physically forced changes in available food resources. The area of greatest SPUE expanded and contracted during the season but its center remained in the eastern bay. Most cells with SPUE>0 were inside the federal critical habitat (CH) and this finding gave evidence of the need for management measures within CH boundaries to reduce anthropogenic mortality from vessel strikes and entanglement. There was significant within-season SPUE variability: low in December−January, increasing to a maximum in late February−early April, and declining to zero in May; and these results provide support for management measures from 1 January−15 May.