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ESR prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01324

A density surface model describing the habitat of the critically endangered Rice’s whale Balaenoptera ricei in the Gulf of Mexico

Lance P. Garrison*, Melissa S. Soldevilla, Anthony Martinez, Keith D. Mullin

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The newly recognized Rice’s whale Balaenoptera ricei is among the most endangered large whale species in the world and primarily occupies a region near the continental shelf break in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico (GoMex). We analyzed visual line transect survey data collected throughout the northern GoMex from 2003–2019 and developed spatially explicit density maps using a density surface modeling approach to examine relationships between Rice’s whale density and bathymetric and oceanographic features. We identified water depth, surface chl a concentration, bottom temperature, and bottom salinity as key parameters that define the Rice’s whale habitat. This is consistent with upwelling of cold, high salinity water along the continental shelf break and seasonal input of high productivity surface water originating from coastal sources. The dominant circulation patterns in the GoMex, including the presence of Loop Current eddies, lead to increased productivity and likely play a role in maintaining high densities of forage species needed to support Rice’s whales. Extrapolation of the model suggests additional regions in Mexican waters of GoMex that may be suitable for Rice’s whales. This study informs the designation of critical habitat as defined by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and will assist in marine spatial planning activities to avoid additional anthropogenic impacts to Rice’s whales associated with the development of wind energy and aquaculture.