ESR 18:73-87 (2012)  -  DOI:

Application of a habitat model to define calving habitat of the North Atlantic right whale in the southeastern United States

Chérie A. Keller1,3,* Lance Garrison2, Rene Baumstark1, Leslie I. Ward-Geiger1, Ellen Hines1,4

1Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 100 Eighth Avenue SE, St. Petersburg, Florida 33701, USA
2National Marine Fisheries Service, Southeast Science Center, Miami, Florida 33027, USA
3Present address: University of Florida, 620 Bartram Hall, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA
4Present address: Department of Geography and Human Environmental Studies, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, California 94132, USA

ABSTRACT: Spatially-explicit habitat models can impart a scientific basis for delineating critical habitats that relate species’ distributions to physical and biological conditions, even in marine environments with vague and dynamic boundaries. We developed a habitat model of the relationship between the winter distribution of North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis, one of the most endangered large whales in the world, and environmental characteristics in its only identified calving ground, the waters off Florida and Georgia. Our objective was to provide a scientific basis for revising critical habitat boundaries in the southeastern USA (SEUS) and to predict potential habitat in the mid-Atlantic region north of the study area through a better understanding of the relationship of observed right whale distribution to environmental conditions. A long-term data set of right whale sightings from aerial surveys within the SEUS (conducted seasonally, December through March, from 1992/1993 to 2000/2001) was used in a generalized additive model to evaluate right whale distribution in relation to sea surface temperature, bathymetry, wind data, and several spatial variables. Model results indicated that sea surface temperature and water depth were significant predictors of calving right whale spatial distribution. The habitat relationships were unimodal, with peak sighting rates occurring at water temperatures of 13 to 15°C and water depths of 10 to 20 m. Model results indicated areas of potentially important calving habitat outside currently defined critical habitat. Our semi-monthly predicted distributions, based on model results, provide managers with a range of scientifically based choices for revising critical habitat boundaries to achieve the desired level of protection. Predictions extrapolated through the mid-Atlantic suggested appropriate habitat features north of the study site, although analysis of data from more recent surveys in this region would be required to validate model results.

KEY WORDS: Eubalaena glacialis · Generalized additive model · GAM · Spatially-explicit model · Geographic Information System · GIS · Critical habitat · Primary constituent element · PCE

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Cite this article as: Keller CA, Garrison L, Baumstark R, Ward-Geiger LI, Hines E (2012) Application of a habitat model to define calving habitat of the North Atlantic right whale in the southeastern United States. Endang Species Res 18:73-87.

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