Abundance and demographic parameters of humpback whales from the Gulf of Maine, and stock definition relative to the Scotian Shelf

Main Article Content

Phil Clapham
Jay Barlow
Moriah Bessinger
Tim Cole
David Mattila
Richard Pace
Debra Palka
Jooke Robbins
Rosemary Seton


The Gulf of Maine is one of the principal summer feeding grounds for humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the North Atlantic, and was one focus of effort in an ocean-basin-wide study known as the Years of the North Atlantic Humpback (YoNAH) project. Data from that project and from subsequent surveys were used to assess stock boundaries, abundance and demographic parameters for Gulf of Maine humpbacks. Surveys on the Scotian Shelf in the summers of 1998 and 1999 produced the first substantial dataset of identified individual humpbacks observed in this region, which lies between the well-studied areas of the Gulf of Maine and Newfoundland. The results gave a match rate of approximately 27% (14 of 52 individuals) between the Scotian Shelf and the Gulf of Maine, with evidence that many of the matched whales were transient in the Gulf of Maine; there were no matches to any other location in the North Atlantic. These data suggest that the range of most whales from the Gulf of Maine usually does not extend as far east as the Scotian Shelf or Newfoundland. Only one whale was observed on the Scotian Shelf in both the 1998 and 1999 surveys, and another seen in 1998 had also been sighted there in 1994. This low inter-annual match rate suggests that the abundance of humpback whales on the Scotian Shelf is larger than previously recognised. Three different but overlapping estimates of abundance for the Gulf of Maine population were calculated. Mark-recapture data from 1992/93 gave an estimate of abundance of 652 (CV = 0.29); however, this estimate is likely biased because of heterogeneity in sampling and in animal distribution. Photo-id data also provided a minimum population estimate of 497 humpbacks known to be alive in 1997; this estimate is also likely to be negatively biased because of heterogeneity. Finally, line-transect surveys conducted in 1999 yielded estimates of 816 (CV = 0.45) or 902 humpback whales (CV = 0.41, including a portion of the eastern Scotian Shelf stratum); these transect-based estimates are more consistent with the number of humpbacks (1,273, including dead animals) in the current photo-id catalogue for the Gulf of Maine. Overall, the size of the Gulf of Maine population is likely to be in the high hundreds, but no more precise estimate can be calculated at this time. The growth rate for the Gulf of Maine population was estimated using an interbirth interval method using data from 1992-2000. The estimate was either 1.00 (for a calf survival rate of 0.51) or 1.04 (for a calf survival rate of 0.875). Although confidence limits are not available (because maturation parameters could not be estimated), both estimates of population growth rate are outside the 95% confidence intervals of the previous estimate of 1.065 for the period 1979-1991 (Barlow and Clapham, 1997). It is unclear whether this apparent decline is an artefact resulting from a shift in distribution or is a real phenomenon; if the latter, it may be related to known high mortality among young-of-the-year whales in the waters of the US mid-Atlantic states. However, calf survival appears to have increased since 1996, presumably accompanied by an increase in population growth.

Article Details


Most read articles by the same author(s)

1 2 > >>