A review of the ecology and status of white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in Svalbard, Norway

This study demonstrated the feasible of using marine mammals to collect oceanographic data in a cost-effective manner to study the habitat of the animals in situ, as well as providing data for physical oceanography studies

Christian Lydersen; Kit M. Kovacs


Scholarcy highlights

  • The Svalbard Archipelago was discovered by Willem Barentsz in 1596, and the first commercial whaling enterprise commenced the year following
  • Norwegians joined in the fishery for white whales in Svalbard in 1866 and continued harvesting until whaling ended in the early 1960s, when the species became protected in Svalbard
  • The tracking study showed that glacier fronts were still important areas for white whales in Svalbard, but that they spent significantly less time in this habitat than previously
  • This was especially pronounced on the west side of Svalbard and suggests that the whales have likely diversified their foraging patterns to include prey in the Atlantic Water masses that prevail in these fjords. It appears that the white whales are coping with current changes in the environment by displaying some behavioural plasticity, unlike another Arctic marine mammal in this area, the ringed seal, which has retracted into small home ranges very close to glacier fronts and has not shifted to the new potential prey available in the Atlantic Water. This tracking study showed that there was a seasonal pattern to the whales’ distribution: the white whales spent the majority of their time in summer on the west coast of Svalbard and moved to the east coast during winter, occupying drift-ice areas, sometimes with ice concentrations of 80–100%
  • After correcting for surface availability based on the diving study described earlier, the Svalbard population of white whales was estimated to consist of 549 animals
  • Killer whales are a serious threat to white whales in areas where there is little sea ice. Changing food webs is likely to impact food availability; the white whale’s primary prey species in Svalbard, polar cod, is already declining in the Barents Sea region, concomitant with reductions in sea ice. melting and retraction of glaciers is shrinking key feeding areas in front of tidewater glaciers, though white whales seem to be showing some plasticity and may already be feeding on Atlantic prey species given that they seem to be spending some time out in the fjords in recent years

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