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Bowhead Whale Research
Satellite Tracking of Western Arctic Bowhead Whales
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Animated bowhead movements between May of 2006 and July of 2010. The animation is large and may load slowly (3.3 MB).
Bowhead whales are the most important species for subsistence communities along the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Concerns regarding bowheads include:
- Offshore and nearshore oil and gas activities
- may deflect whales away from shore making hunting more difficult and dangerous
- may displace whales from feeding areas
- may cause oil spills that would affect migrating bowheads
- Stock structure
- whales harvested at St. Lawrence Island may be a different stock then those harvested at Barrow
- More Information is Needed Regarding
- migration routes
- migration timing
- feeding areas
- diving behavior
- time spent in areas within spring and summer range
- Summary of fall movements in the Chukchi Sea (PDF file 328 K)
- Project update for the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (2008) (PDF file 210 K)
- Poster presented at the 2007 Biennial Conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy (PDF file 90 K)
- Bowhead tracking poster for AMMS 2010 (PDF file 1,200 K)
Fifteen satellite tags were deployed on bowhead whales in Alaska and Canada in 2009. In August, eight bowhead whales were tagged near Barrow, Alaska, and three were tagged in Canada near Atkinson Point on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. One gray whale was also tagged in Canada. Four more bowheads were tagged near Barrow in October.
Seven of the fifteen bowhead tags were still transmitting 6–7 months later in mid March 2010. These transmitters have provided additional information about movements and habitat use in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the fall, as well as winter distribution in the Bering Sea that we can compare with the winter of 2008–2009. These tags are also providing dive data and can tell us where in the water column bowheads are spending their time when diving. The gray whale was last heard from in late November 2009.
During 2009 we analyzed location data from tags deployed in 2006–2008 and prepared a manuscript for publication in the journal Arctic on movements and time spent in the Chukchi Sea in the fall to determine important habitats and the use of oil and gas lease sale area 193 (Abstract for Arctic — PDF file 29 K). To date, we have had four tags transmit for more than 300 days with two transmit for more than a year.
We were also able to track 10 bowhead whales throughout the winter of 2008 in the Bering Sea. We analyzed the winter movements and dive behavior of the tagged bowheads and in October presented that analysis at the Marine Mammal Society meetings in Quebec City, Canada (Abstract from Quebec — PDF file 44 K). We were able to determine that the tagged bowhead whales used a limited area of the western Bering Sea in winter and used areas of 80–100% ice concentration with almost no use of open water or light ice areas. Four of these whales had tags that recorded dive data that showed all whales diving to the bottom, possibly indicating feeding in winter. This winter, bowhead whales are more spread out and using more areas to the east and along the ice edge.
We continued to provide updates to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission at their meetings and completed the Traditional Knowledge Reports for Wainwright (TK Report for Wainwright — PDF file 285 K), Barrow, and Kaktovik (TK Report for Barrow and Kaktovik — PDF file 243 K). We traveled to Saint Lawrence Island in November 2009 at the request of the whaling captains of Savoonga and Gambell to talk about tagging there. Both communities were interested in tagging during fall whaling. Captains were chosen to participate, but unfortunately no hunting or tagging occurred this fall due to weather.
Eight more bowhead tags were deployed on 23 September. Four of these tags were deployed by Lewis Brower and his crew (Mike Donovan Jr. and Nelson Nungasuk) and four were deployed by Billy Adams and his crew (Harry Brower and Joe Sage). No more tagging will occur until the end of the fall whaling season, which begins on 4 October.
Of the eight new tags, seven are transmitting. One tag, PTT 37278, has yet to transmit. This tag was attached a bit low on the whale's back, so the antenna might be having trouble clearing the surface. We expect to receive intermittent transmissions from this tag, as the battery had good voltage before the tag was deployed.
There are a total of 14 whales currently transmitting. The whale tagged in Canada (PTT 37233), the one that went to Wrangel Island and then returned to Barrow, is still transmitting off shore of Barrow. Two whales are located along the coast of Chukotka, Russia, eight whales are west or northwest of Barrow, and four whales are in the vicinity of Barrow.
The second year of the cooperative effort to deploy satellite tags on bowhead whales in the Canadian Beaufort Sea begin in early August based out of Atkinson Point, Northwest Territories, Canada. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) Canada, led by Lois Harwood, provided substantial financial and logistical support for the tagging effort and worked closely with the Hunters and Trappers Committees (HTC) of Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk to provide the opportunity to tag bowhead whales in Canada.
On August 2nd a field camp was established near Atkinson Point, east of the Mackenzie River Delta on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. Last summer, tagging was based out of Shingle Point (Yukon coast) west of the Mackenzie River Delta. Atkinson Point was chosen because of the large concentrations of bowheads that have been observed in feeding aggregations offshore during aerial surveys conducted by DFO in previous years and the intent to tag whales further east such that they could be monitored over a broader area in the Canadian Beaufort where substantial seismic operations are being conducted this summer.
The field team included James Pokiak, Charles Pokiak, Buddy Gruben, and Douglas Panaktalok from the Tuktoyaktuk HTC, Dennis Arey from the Aklavik HTC, Kevin Bill and Terry Stein of DFO, George Tagarook from Kaktovik, Ray Koonuk from Point Hope, Anders Jensen (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute/Greenland Institute of Natural Resources), and Bob Small (ADF&G).
High winds and rough seas kept the boats at camp until August 11th when whales were observed in the afternoon ~15 miles north of camp. The whales' time at the surface was quite limited and thus no tagging opportunities were possible. On August 12th, groups of whales were located in the afternoon ~20 miles northwest from camp. Although the sea swell was minimal there was a fair bit of chop that precluding the tracking of the whales' bubble trails, limiting tagging opportunities. At ~4:30 in the afternoon a SPLASH tag (records dive behavior and location is obtained) was deployed using a pole at N70°10.38 W132°17.26. The tagged whale was by itself, did not react to the tagging, and had been exhibiting typical diving and surfacing behavior prior to the tagging. As of August 16th, poor weather has again precluding any additional tagging efforts. James Pokiak will continue to try and tag whales over the next month.
In the fall of 2007, three tags were deployed near Barrow, Alaska, on 29 August, by Lewis Brower and Craig George of the North Slope Borough. We received transmissions from tag 50679 until 31 August, from 37283 until 3 September, and from 42522 until 14 September. After leaving Barrow, whale 42522 crossed the Chukchi Sea, passing 75 degrees north, and then migrated south to the coast of Chukotka (see figure above).
Five tags were also deployed near Shingle Point, Yukon Territories, Canada, between 23 and 25 August. We received daily transmissions from one tag (#60016) between 8 August and 9 September (see figure above). Unfortunately the other tags failed. We are currently investigating the reasons behind these failures. This was a collaborative effort that involved George Tagarook and Eddie Arey (whalers from Kaktovik, Alaska), Pat Tasook, Dennis Arey, and Larry Arey (Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, Canada), Lois Harwood, Angus Alunik, Kevin Bill, Terry Stein, and Tim LeBlanc (Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Steven Raverty (Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, British Columbia, Canada), Robert Small (Alaska Department of Fish and Game), and Mikkel Jensen (Greenland Institute of Natural Resources).
In 2006, two bowhead whales were tagged near Barrow, AK. Whale #60010 was tagged during the spring migration on 12 May 2006, and was tracked throughout the spring and summer (yellow track line in maps). Whale #60009 was tagged during the fall migration 21 September, 2006. The tag for #60009 has only transmitted a few locations (orange circles in maps). Both transmitters ran out of battery power in November, 2006.
Contact from ADF&G:
Arctic Marine Mammal Program
1300 College Road
Fairbanks, AK 99701
Ph: (907) 459-7214
Fax: (907) 452-6410