National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2014

Subarctic cetaceans in the southern Chukchi Sea: Evidence of recovery or response to a changing ecosystem

Clarke, J., K. Stafford, S.E. Moore, B. Rone, L. Aerts, and J. Crance

Oceanography, 26(4), 136–149, doi: 10.5670/oceanog.2013.81 (2013)

The southern Chukchi Sea is one of the most productive areas in the world ocean. Over the past decade, there have been dramatic changes in this region in sea ice cover and in Bering Strait inflow, and it is now in the path of transpolar shipping and destinational ship traffic, including vessels supporting Arctic offshore oil and gas development and tourism, all of which are anticipated to increase with decreasing seasonal sea ice cover. Little research on cetaceans has been conducted in the southern Chukchi Sea, and most information on the occurrence of subarctic species (humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae, fin whale Balaenoptera physalus, minke whale B. acutorostrata, and killer whale Orcinus orca) comes from the ships' logs of commercial whalers in the mid to late twentieth century and from observers stationed along the Chukotka Peninsula. Information on cetacean seasonal occurrence east of the International Date Line (IDL) in US waters is particularly scarce. To address this information gap, we compiled visual sightings and acoustic detections of subarctic cetaceans in the southern Chukchi Sea during summer and early autumn from 2009 to 2012. Humpback whales were common on both sides of the IDL in August and September. Fin and minke whales were widely distributed east of the IDL from July to September, and killer whales were seen sporadically but were the most widely dispersed of the four species. Comparisons of our results with historical records indicate that the incidence of subarctic cetaceans may be increasing in the southern Chukchi Sea. An increase in occurrence may simply be a post-commercial whaling recovery of whale numbers and seasonal range by each species, or it may reflect responses to ongoing climate change. Understanding current stock identity, spatial and temporal distribution, habitat preference, relative abundance, and potential impacts of climate change on these species will require cetacean-focused research in this region of the Arctic.

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