Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

MGEL takes part in international collaboration for North Atlantic right whale modeling 

Though humans need proper documentation to travel back and forth across the Canada/US border, right whales have no such restriction. As the climate changes, North Atlantic right whales (NARW) are shifting their habitat use patterns within US and Canadian waters. As such, understanding where NARW are distributed throughout their habitat range is a critical and difficult transboundary conservation problem. 

North Atlantic right whale mother/calf pair. Photo credit: Christin Khan / NOAA NEFSC, taken under MMPA permit 17355. 

To address this challenge, scientists from Duke University’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), and a variety of other organizations met in Montréal, Québec in December 2022 to discuss a potential collaboration to create a transboundary model for North Atlantic right whales. This was the first in-person meeting between those involved, after months of preparation via Zoom.  

Scientists from MGEL, DFO, NOAA, the University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University, the Center for Coastal Studies, New England Aquarium, Bigelow University, the University of British Columbia, and the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute pose for a photo in Montreal. 

NARW habitat is known to extend up the Atlantic coast from Florida to Newfoundland, in both U.S. and Canadian waters. Using aerial and shipboard surveys contributed by U.S.-based collaborators, MGEL has created a NARW density model (model repository, mapping application) for U.S. waters (Roberts et al., 2016), Roberts et al., 2023). Using data collected in Canadian waters over the past five years, DFO is currently developing an occurrence model for NARW in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River estuary. With the whales spread between both countries, neither country’s models can account for the entire population, making it difficult to evaluate model performance or confidently estimate how many whales are in each country at a given time of year. A transboundary model that spans the entire range of the species across both countries is needed. However, scientists in each country have used different analytical techniques to model the population, so it is not as straightforward as simply merging the two efforts.  

Study area for the DFO NARW occurrence model currently in progress.

The Montreal meeting resulted in a steering committee tasked with coordinating the development of two transboundary models, one using the U.S. density modeling methods and one using the Canadian probability of occurrence modeling methods. Over the course of the next year or two, the organizations will work collaboratively on data sharing and modeling method development, as well as related activities. The participants will work together to develop a meeting proceeding document, data sharing and storage agreements, and collaborate on related projects like developing a transboundary zooplankton model that could inform the NARW models. 

The resulting methods will help refine our knowledge of NARW habitat use, and, by extension, help both countries to implement management efforts to better protect this endangered population.  

This project is supported by funding from NOAA Fisheries under award NA20NMF0080246. 

Roberts JJ, Yack TM, Halpin PN (2023) Marine mammal density models for the U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing (AFTT) study area for the Phase IV Navy Marine Species Density Database (NMSDD). Document version 1.3. Report prepared for Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, Atlantic by the Duke University Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Durham, North Carolina.