ESR prepress abstract  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00951

Variation in North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis occurrence in the Bay of Fundy, Canada, over three decades

Kimberley T. A. Davies*, Moira W. Brown, Philip K. Hamilton, Amy R. Knowlton Christopher T. Taggart, Angelia S. M. Vanderlaan

*Email: kim.davies@unb.ca

ABSTRACT: North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis, hereafter right whale) have recently shifted their distribution away from some protected feeding habitats, which suggests large-scale changes in food supply have occurred. Quantifying the nature and extent of the apparent shift is key to exploring this hypothesis and planning or revising conservation strategies. This paper characterizes decadal right whale occurrence in the Bay of Fundy summer feeding habitat using data derived from 7 522 hours of survey effort over 30 years (1987–2016) that yielded 11 483 sightings. Eight occurrence descriptors were derived to quantify temporal variation in right whale presence, encounter rates and time of arrival in the Bay. Time of arrival was modeled using linear and power function models fit to annual discovery curves. Principal component analysis showed 2 modes that explained 58 and 14% of the variation in occurrence, respectively. The first mode captured a significant decline in summertime right whale occurrence beginning in 2010. The second mode captured a decadal-scale cycle in seasonal timing of occurrence, which highlighted a sharp change from early to late occupancy at the turn of the millennium. Annual occurrence during the 2010–2017 period was anomalously low in both the Grand Manan Basin Critical Habitat and the Bay of Fundy Traffic Separation Scheme (shipping lanes), whereas encounters in the region NW of the Critical Habitat containing Owen Basin and The Wolves islands may be increasing due to a distributional shift. We discuss the consequences of these changes for both population dynamics and future conservation of the species.