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Opportunistic sightings from fisheries surveys inform habitat suitability for northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, Canadian Arctic

E. R. Davidson*, S. H. Ferguson, J. W. Higdon, M. A. Treble

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Knowledge of spatial habitat patterns is critical for understanding the ecology of cetaceans and informing conservation efforts. However, this can be difficult to obtain for species that live in deep, offshore Arctic waters where they are not easily observed. We investigated the habitat suitability of two cetacean species, northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) and sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) in Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, eastern Canadian Arctic. Presence locations were obtained from a unique marine mammal sightings dataset where observations were opportunistically recorded during annual government-led fisheries surveys (1999-2017). Environmental variable data were used as predictors in presence-only habitat suitability modeling in Maxent software. A total of 12 sperm whales were observed at 9 unique locations and 282 northern bottlenose whales were observed at 66 unique locations. The best habitat suitability model for sperm whale (AUC = 0.72) and for northern bottlenose whale (AUC = 0.88) indicated higher suitability for both species in the central portion of the study area; higher suitability for sperm whales was also present in the southern part of the study area. A future projections scenario using environmental data from 2021 forecasted an increase in suitability in northern regions for northern bottlenose whales and sperm whales. Post-model comparisons identified significant relationships between survey effort and habitat suitability, and squid biomass and habitat suitability for both species, although the variance explained by these models was low. We discuss the importance of monitoring cetacean range expansion of temperate whales in the Arctic and how this could lead to shifts in ecosystem dynamics and increased conflict with commercial fisheries.