Bowhead whale body condition and links to summer sea ice and upwelling in the Beaufort Sea
We examined the response of bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) body condition to summer sea ice conditions and upwelling-favorable winds. We used a long-term dataset collected from whales of the Bering–Chukchi–Beaufort Seas (BCB) stock to estimate various body condition indices (BCI’s) for individual whales that were harvested by Alaskan Eskimos. A series of offshore regions frequented by bowhead whales in summer were delineated and used to quantify interannual summertime environmental conditions including: (a) mean open water fraction, (b) duration of melt season, (c) date of continuous freeze-up, and (d) mean upwelling-favorable wind stress. Body condition was analyzed relative to these metrics for both the preceding summer feeding season and the previous three seasons combined. Our analysis indicates a significant increase in the long-term trend in an axillary girth-based body condition index (BCIG) over the study period (1989–2011). The increase in BCIG is likely associated with the trend in overall reduction of sea ice, including increased duration of open water, changes in upwelling potential (wind stress), and possibly higher primary production in the Pacific Arctic marine ecosystem favoring water-column invertebrates. We found strong significant positive correlations between BCIG and late summer open water fraction in the Beaufort Sea and smaller nearshore areas off the Mackenzie Delta and west of Banks Island. Additionally, BCIG was positively and significantly correlated with duration of melt season, later date of freeze-up in the Beaufort Sea, and upwelling-favorable winds on the Mackenzie shelf and west of Banks Island. A strong seasonal difference in BCI’s was noted for subadult bowheads, presumably associated with summer feeding; however, yearlings were found to drop in BCI over at least the first summer after weaning. Our results indicate an overall increase in bowhead whale body condition and a positive correlation with summer sea ice loss over the last 2.5 decades in the Pacific Arctic. We speculate that sea ice loss has positive effects on secondary trophic production within the BCB bowhead’s summer feeding region. While not part of this study, the abundance of BCB bowheads increased markedly over the same period.