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Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program

Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals Project: Preliminary Results from
the 2012 Field Season

Research Reports
July-Sept 2012
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bowhead whales

The Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project is the successor to the Bowhead Whale Aerial Survey Project (BWASP) and the Chukchi Offshore Monitoring in Drilling Area (COMIDA) marine mammal aerial surveys. BWASP started in the late 1970s surveying the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and has continued uninterrupted since; surveys in the Chukchi Sea were conducted as part of BWASP from 1979 to 1991 and as part of COMIDA from 2008 to 2010. The ASAMM project is conducted by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML), funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), and permitted through the National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Daily reports from the 2012 field season as well as previous years’ reports are available on the NMML website.

The lengthened open-water season and reduced sea-ice coverage in summer and fall in the Arctic foretell increased human activities in this region, including shipping, fishing, recreation, and oil and gas exploration, development, and production. In order to minimize and mitigate the effects of anthropogenic activities on arctic marine mammals, information on marine mammal ecology is needed for all seasons in which activities could occur. ASAMM is the only project providing broad-scale visual information about the distribution, relative abundance, and behavior of marine mammals in the Alaskan Arctic during summer and fall including, but not limited to, regions of interest to the oil and gas industry.

map see caption  
Figure 1. Cetacean sightings from ASAMM aerial surveys and ABWC beluga aerial surveys, 30 June-30 September 2012. Map by Janet Clarke. Click map to enlarge.

 
map see caption  
Figure 2. Non-cetacean sightings from ASAMM aerial surveys and ABWC beluga aerial surveys, 30 June-30 September 2012. Map by Janet Clarke. Click map to enlarge.  

The objectives of the ASAMM study are to 1) describe the annual migration of Western Arctic bowhead whales across the Alaskan Arctic, including significant inter-year differences and long-term trends in the spatial distribution and timing (duration and start date) of the migration; 2) document relative abundance, spatial and temporal distribution, and behavior (including calving/pupping, feeding, hauling out) of marine mammals (cetaceans, ice seals, walruses, and polar bears) in the Alaskan Arctic; 3) provide near real-time data and maps to BOEM and NMFS on marine mammals in the Alaskan Arctic, with specific emphasis on endangered species, such as bowhead whales; 4) provide an objective, wide-area context for understanding marine mammal ecology in the Alaskan Arctic to help inform management decisions and interpret results of other small-scale studies; 5) provide, when requested by BOEM’s representative, limited integrative products such as graphics of summarized observations for use by BOEM analysts in National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA) analyses and documentation; and 6) provide timely information on environmental conditions, including ice conditions, to organizations (e.g., the National Ice Center, Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and BOEM) as directed by BOEM’s representative.

ASAMM surveys are conducted in the western Beaufort and northeastern Chukchi Seas (68°N-72°N latitude and 140°W-169°W longitude), extending from the coast to a maximum of approximately 315 km offshore, encompassing 230,000 km2. Two teams are required to cover the study area: one team, based out of Barrow, Alaska, surveys the northeastern Chukchi Sea and the other team, based out of Deadhorse, Alaska, surveys the western Beaufort Sea. Fixed-wing, twin-turbine Aero Commander aircraft have been used for all surveys in 2012. These aircraft have a 5.5-hour flight endurance and are outfitted with bubble windows for downward visibility. Line-transect surveys are flown every day, weather and logistics permitting, at an altitude of 1,200 ft in the Chukchi Sea and 1,500 ft in the Beaufort Sea.

In 2012, Chukchi Sea surveys were conducted from 1 July to 31 October and Beaufort Sea surveys from 19 July to 20 October. Additional surveys, flown by NMML and sponsored by the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee (ABWC), were designed to survey the eastern Chukchi Sea beluga stock; these surveys were flown 30 June-12 July from the coast out to 45 nautical miles offshore in the northeastern Chukchi Sea and in the region of Barrow Canyon. Cetacean sightings and non-cetacean sightings from these surveys, 30 June-30 September 2012, are plotted on maps in Figures 1 and 2, respectively.

Overall, weather patterns in 2012 have remained similar to patterns in other recent years. However, sea ice remained longer in the northern part of the study area, including near Hanna Shoal, in summer 2012 than in recent years (2009-2011) despite the record minimum extent of sea ice in the Arctic. (continued)
 

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