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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13299

Population comparison of right whale body condition reveals poor state of the North Atlantic right whale

Fredrik Christiansen*, Stephen M. Dawson, John W. Durban, Holly Fearnbach, Carolyn A. Miller, Lars Bejder, Marcela Uhart, Mariano Sironi, Peter Corkeron, William Rayment, Eva Leunissen, Eashani Haria, Rhianne Ward, Hunter A. Warick, Iain Kerr, Morgan S. Lynn, Heather M. Pettis, Michael J. Moore

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis, NARW), currently numbering <410 individuals, is on a trajectory to extinction. Although direct mortality from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements remain the major threats to the population, reproductive failure, resulting from poor body condition and sublethal chronic entanglement stress, is believed to play a crucial role in the population decline. Using photogrammetry from unmanned aerial vehicles, we conducted the largest yet population assessment of right whale body condition to determine if the condition of NARW was poorer than three seemingly healthy (i.e. growing) populations of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis, SRW) in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. We found that NARW juveniles, adults and lactating females all had lower body condition scores compared to the SRW populations. While some of the difference could be the result of genetic isolation and adaptations to local environmental conditions, the magnitude suggests that NARWs are in a poor condition, which could be suppressing their growth, survival, age of sexual maturation and calving rates. NARW calves were found to be in good condition. Their body length, however, was found to be strongly determined by the body condition of their mothers, suggesting that the poor condition of lactating NARW females may cause a reduction in calf growth rates. This could potentially lead to a reduction in calf survival or an increase in female calving intervals. Hence, the poor body condition of individuals within the NARW population is of major concern for its future viability.