Abundance estimates of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Irish coastal waters using mark-recapture and citizen science

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Miguel Blázquez
Nick Massett
Pádraig Whooley
Joanne O'Brien
Frederick Wenzel
Ian O'Connor
Simon Berrow


Abundance estimates are crucial for implementing effective conservation measures for large marine megafauna – particularly cetaceans. When combined with robust research methodologies, citizen science can provide a very useful tool to monitor large baleen whale populations, especially given their migratory nature, with individuals covering large areas typically exceeding the capacity of single research teams. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group has been collecting humpback whale photo‐ID data in the inshore waters of Ireland since 1999. The Group curates a catalogue that contained 120 individual humpback whales up to 2022. Most of these data were obtained through citizen science and the catalogue was built following robust methodologies and strict data‐quality protocols. We used this photo‐ID catalogue to derive the first comprehensive abundance estimates for the species in Irish waters using mark‐recapture modelling techniques. We applied two approaches: (1) open population maximum likelihood mark‐recapture models based on the POPAN formulation; (2) a multi‐site mark‐recapture model selection framework based on Bayesian inference. The first method yielded a humpback whale superpopulation size of 154 ± 9 (95% CI = 138–172, CV = 0.06) between 1999–2022, with annual abundance ranging between 2 ± 1 and 77 ± 8 individuals. The second approach provided annual abundance estimates from 3 ± 2 to 76 ± 11 for the same period. This study supports the idea of an increased presence of humpback whales in inshore Irish waters, especially during the last decade. Despite this increase, results also highlight the apparently very small size of the North Atlantic humpback whale subgroup occurring in the inshore waters of Ireland.

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