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First abundance estimate for white whales Delphinapterus leucas in Svalbard, Norway

Jade VacquiƩ-Garcia*, Christian Lydersen, Tiago A. Marques, Magnus Andersen, Kit M. Kovacs

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The Svalbard Archipelago (Norway) is experiencing rapid declines in the seasonal duration and extent of sea-ice cover and local tidewater glaciers are melting. These environmental changes represent a threat to ice-associated species in the region, including white whales Delphinapterus leucas. However, no estimate of stock size or trend are available for this stock. An aerial survey was conducted during the summer of 2018 covering (1) coastlines of all major islands in Svalbard and transects in (2) fjords and (3) open ocean areas. A total count was attempted for (1), while coverage of (2) and (3) were designed as distance-sampling line transects. Two hundred and sixty-five white whales were detected, in 22 groups, along the 4965 km of coastline coverage. No whales were observed along fjord (1481 km) or open ocean transects (535 km). After correcting for surface availability, using behavioural data from the same area (in summer), and making adjustments for small areas not flown during the survey, the stock size was estimated to be 549 (95% CI 436−723). This estimate was surprisingly low given that this species is one of the most frequently observed cetaceans in the area, but it confirms suspicions based on difficulties in finding animals when operating white whale tagging programmes over the past decade. This first population estimate is important in the context of the rapid environmental change taking place in the Arctic and for providing a baseline for comparison with future estimates.