Pre-whaling abundance of the endangered North Atlantic right whale

Monsarrat, S., Pennino, M.G., Smith, T.D., Reeves, R.R., Meynard, C.N., Kaplan, D.M. & Rodrigues, A.S.L. (2016). A spatially explicit estimate of the prewhaling abundance of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Conservation Biology, 30, 783–791.

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The North Atlantic right whale (NARW) (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of the world’s most threatened whales. It came close to extinction after nearly a millennium of exploitation and currently persists as a population of only approximately 500 individuals. Setting appropriate conservation targets for this species requires an understanding of its historical population size, as a baseline for measuring levels of depletion and progress toward recovery. This is made difficult by the scarcity of records over this species’ long whaling history. We sought to estimate the pre-exploitation population size of the North Atlantic right whale and understand how this species was distributed across its range. We used a spatially explicit data set on historical catches of North Pacific right whales (NPRWs) (Eubalaena japonica) to model the relationship between right whale relative density and the environment during the summer feeding season. Assuming the 2 right whale species select similar environments, we projected this model into the North Atlantic to predict how the relative abundance of NARWs varied across their range. We calibrated these relative abundances with estimates of the NPRW total pre-whaling population size to obtain high and low estimates for the overall NARW population size prior to exploitation. The model predicted 9,075-21,328 right whales in the North Atlantic. The current NARW population is thus <6% of the historical North Atlantic carrying capacity and thus has enormous potential for recovery. According to the model, in June-September NARWs were concentrated in two main feeding areas: east of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and in the Norwegian Sea. These two areas may become important in the future as feeding grounds and may already be used more regularly by this endangered species than is thought.