Trends in sea-ice cover within bowhead whale habitats in the Pacific Arctic
Published on Oct 1, 2017in Deep-sea Research Part Ii-topical Studies in Oceanography2.43
· DOI :10.1016/j.dsr2.2017.10.017
Abstract The range of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) population of bowhead whales ( Balaena mysticetus ) extends across the seasonally ice-covered waters of the Pacific Arctic region. The majority of whales summer in the eastern Beaufort Sea and winter in the Bering Sea, migrating across the Chukchi Sea in fall and spring. As arctic sea-ice extent rapidly diminishes, the increasing length and variability of the open water season is changing bowhead habitat substantially, with many areas now regularly ice-free when whales are present. This study examines changes in the number of open water days (OWD) between 1979 and 2014 within annual bowhead whale core-use areas as defined by satellite tagging data, and within the western Beaufort Sea (140–157°W; to 72°N) sampled by fall aerial surveys. Ice cover has decreased more in the core-use areas in the northern extent of the range than in core-use areas in the southern extent. The numbers of OWD within the core-use areas near Point Barrow and along the northern Chukotka Coast during peak use have increased by 13 and 10 days/decade, respectively. The most dramatic reductions in sea-ice cover have taken place in the western Beaufort Sea where the number of OWD on the shelf and slope have increased by 20 and 25 days/decade, respectively. In contrast, sea-ice cover has not significantly changed within the winter core-use area near the Gulf of Anadyr. Using aerial survey data, we found that bowheads in the Beaufort Sea during the fall migration have a preference for being closer to shore than to the ice edge, and that their distance to shore decreases as the fraction of open water increases. This distribution may be due to increased feeding opportunities closer to shore as a result of greater upwelling along the shelf break when the ice cover is farther from shore. Furthermore, the aerial survey data also revealed a substantial shift westward toward Point Barrow in the whales’ use of the western Beaufort Sea during fall in the period 1997–2014 compared to 1982–1996. The extent and timing of sea-ice coverage has changed relatively little over time in the Bering Sea. Bowheads typically migrate north prior to spring ice melt and retreat; therefore, large changes in the timing of the spring migration are not expected. We anticipate that bowheads will spend increasingly more time within summer and fall feeding areas, delaying their arrival to wintering areas in the Bering Sea. Reduced ice coverage and thickness in the southern Chukchi Sea may make wintering there more common in the future. Summer and fall movements may be more variable as productivity and zooplankton aggregations in existing feeding areas are altered in response to sea ice thinning and retreat, and as new areas become available.