Population identity of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the waters of the US mid-Atlantic states

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Susan G. Barco
William A. McLellan
Judith M. Allen
Regina A. Asmutis-Silvia
Richard Mallon-Day
Erin M. Meagher
D. Ann Pabst
Jooke Robbins
Rosemary E. Seton
W. Mark Swingle
Mason T. Weinrich
Phillip J. Clapham


In recent years, humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been observed in the waters of the US mid-Atlantic states (USMA; New Jersey to North Carolina), notably in winter. The level of the mortality in this area (52 recorded deaths from 1990-2000), makes it important to understand the nature and population identity of this aggregation. Of the approximately 100 humpback whales documented in this study, photographs of 41 (live or dead) were of sufficient quality to be compared to catalogues from the Gulf of Maine (GOM, the closest feeding ground) and elsewhere in the North Atlantic. Of 22 live whales, 10 (45.5%) matched to the GOM, 5 (22.7%) to Newfoundland and 1 (4.5%) to the Gulf of St Lawrence (GSL). Of 19 dead whales, 6 (31.6%) were known GOM whales. Although the population composition of the USMA is dominated by GOM whales, lack of recent photographic effort in Newfoundland makes it likely that the observed match rates under represent the true presence of Canadian whales in the region. Length data from 48 stranded whales (18 females, 22 males and 8 of unknown sex) suggest that 39 (81.2%) were first-year animals, 7 (14.6%) were immature and 2 (4.2%) were adults. However, sighting histories of five of the dead whales indicate that some were small for their age and histories of live whales further indicate that the population contains a greater percentage of mature animals than is suggested by the stranded sample. The authors suggest that the study area primarily represents a supplemental winter feeding ground that is used by humpbacks for more than one purpose. From a management perspective, although the only successful matches of mortalities to date have been to the GOM, the observed mixing of live whales from different summer stocks might suggest that the high numbers of mortalities occurring there may not be impacting this single stock alone. Although further data are required before conclusions can be drawn, the mortality rate may be significant for the GOM population and this warrants further investigation.

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