Aerial surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals study area in the northeastern chukchi and western Beaufort seas, including survey transects, survey boundaries, offshore oil and gas lease areas, and bathymetry. -

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Researchers eye marine mammals in offshore surveys

August 11th, 2017 | Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder Print this article   Email this article  

Bowhead whales and other marine mammals are the focus of a four-month survey project this summer in Arctic waters.

Led jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the Department of Interior and the Marine Mammal Laboratory, the Department of Commerce, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, this summer's research is part of a series of years-long studies of the region's biodiversity.

Called the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals, the project aims to gather data about the populations of these animals in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, specifically in areas where there is potential for future oil and gas development.

Researchers will spend the summer months flying over the region, tallying the number of bowhead, right, fin, and gray whales, belugas, and other marine mammals they see in particular areas. They'll note where they were spotted and what they were doing.

The information they gather will add to an already decades-long data set collected by scientists since 1979.

This project is just the most recent incarnation of a series of research efforts led by this group of agencies over the last three-and-a-half decades. The Bowhead Whale Aerial Survey Project (BWASP) ran from 1979 until 2010 and focused on the bowhead whale migrations through the Beaufort Sea in fall. Around the same time, the Chukchi Offshore Monitoring in Drilling Areas (COMIDA) collected data on summer and fall marine mammal populations in the adjacent sea, starting in 2008.

They've both now been incorporated under the current project.

The annual migration of the bowhead whale still remains the central focus of observations, as researchers hope to better understand how these patterns change from year to year and if there are any long-term trends.

Additionally, the observers will pay attention to the calving and pupping, hauling out, and feeding trends of other species including ice seals, walruses, and polar bears, according to a notice from the organizations leading the project.

They'll also feed "near real-time data and maps to BOEM and NMFS on marine mammals in the Alaskan Arctic, with specific interest in endangered species, such as bowhead whales," the notice stated.

All in all, the project aims to provide baseline and up-to-date data that may be able to better guide management and industry decisions in the years to come.

This year's observations began July 1 and will continue through the end of October. Project participants are writing observation updates that can be found on the Alaska Fisheries Science Center's science blog.

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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