New migration patterns detected in bowhead whales

In 2009, researchers from OSU placed hydrophones in the Bering Strait, the water gateway to the Arctic.
Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 7:46 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Through bowhead whales’ sound waves, researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) have been able to study their changing migration patterns in the Arctic.

In 2009, researchers from OSU placed hydrophones in the Bering Strait, the water gateway to the Arctic. Using this device, researchers studied when bowhead whales entered the gate and their relationship with sea ice. Traditionally, bowhead whales spend winters in the northern Bering Sea before migrating north, alongside the coast, to the Canadian Beaufort Sea for the spring.

“And the data that (OSU postdoctoral fellow) Angela (Szesciorka) was looking at shows that in fact now not all whales are passing through the Bering Strait. Some are spending the entire winter in the southern Chukchi Sea,” said Kate Stafford, an associate professor at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute.

Secondly, researchers noticed that bowhead whales tended to stay where there was more ice.

“We looked at the statistical relationship between bowhead whale presence and sea ice and found that was a really strong, correlative relationship,” said Angela Szesciorka, an OSU postdoctoral fellow.

This is critical information to know, according to the researchers, because the absence of bowhead whales in these areas could impact aspects of Alaska Native life.

“Bowheads are important for nutritional, cultural and spiritual subsistence,” Stafford said. “And although all the villages that hunt bowhead whales have been very successful and they continue to be successful, if the distribution of bowhead whales changes, that could negatively impact the hunt.

“As an example, in the fall of 2019, whalers out of Utqiaġvik only landed a single bowhead. And they didn’t land that whale until November which was the latest in known history. So the fact that no whales were seen despite a lot of effort by whalers in 2019 suggests that something in the environment is changing.”

Stafford added: “It’s showing a change in migration patterns that is related to change in the climate.”

Researchers say they are planning to extend this research, using hydrophones in the northern Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to see if they find a similar pattern.