US Navy

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Marine Species Monitoring

Mid-Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog

Introduction & Objectives

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are the most common mysticete in the nearshore waters off the coast of Virginia Beach, VA (Mallette et al. 2016), and evidence of seasonal use, foraging, and site fidelity from mark-recapture efforts suggest the mid-Atlantic provides important seasonal habitat for humpback whales (Swingle et al. 1993, Barco et al. 2002, Mallette et al. 2016).  Barco et al. (2002) suggested that some individual humpback whales overwinter in the mid-Atlantic and that this region may serve as a supplemental feeding ground. Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest Naval Station with a high concentration of military vessel traffic and training exercises occurring in the near and offshore waters of Virginia. The Navy has expressed an interest in the identity, residency, site fidelity of, and habitat use by humpback whales sighted in the mid-Atlantic region through the funding of tagging and biopsy efforts (Aschettino et al. 2017) and aerial surveys (Mallette et al. 2017).

The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation has been tasked with developing a centralized, collaborative humpback whale photo-identification catalog for the mid-Atlantic and southeast regions.  The catalog will be hosted by the OBIS-SEAMAP online platform (Halpin et al. 2009) and benefit researchers, managers, and educators by supporting informed management and and environmenatl planning.

The objectives of this project are to:

  • Create a regional catalog of high quality humpback whale identification images and sighting data in collaboration with contributors from the mid-Atlantic region.
  • Develop a searchable online photo-id catalog for humpback whales sighted outside traditional feeding and breeding areas off the U.S, mid-Atlantic states to inform the Navy of the site fidelity and habitat use of humpbacks sighted in Navy training areas.
  • Produce a collaborative report/manuscript on humpback whale sighting, residency and site fidelity in the U.S. mid-Atlantic with collaborators and contributors as co-authors.
  • Explore feasibility of integrating other images (aerial survey and stranded animal) into the catalog to enhance sighting contributions collected from additional platforms and to build a robust collection of individually identified humpback whales.

Technical Approach

The primary product of this project is an online platform and interface to share photo-ID data that have been collected and archived. The MAHWC online catalog will be hosted on the Ocean Biogeographic Information System Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations (OBIS-SEAMAP; Halpin et al. 2009) and modeled after the MABDC. OBIS-SEAMAP is a web-based biogeographic database of multi-platform survey data for marine megafauna. It provides tools for mapping and visualizing species sighting data on a global scale. Currently, OBIS-SEAMAP hosts multiple other photo-ID catalogs (e.g., MABDC, PIPIN) and provides a user-friendly interface that provides efficient tools for comparison of collections. 

Existing examples of web-based photo-ID catalogs have served as models for identifying the key components needed to develop an online catalog accessible by multiple researchers and one tailored specifically to humpback whale collaborative photo-ID efforts. Additionally, consultations with the core stakeholder group provide invaluable guidance through the development of the data sharing agreement, protocols, and draft web interface/database of the MAHWC. 

This project uses a highly collaborative approach among east coast marine mammal researchers.  Collaborators include Allied Whale, Center for Coastal Studies, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Kim Urian Consulting, and Duke University.  Contributors of sighting data and images include permitted researchers, stranding response cooperators, and whale watch vessels operating under responsible whale watch guidelines, including, but not limited to, HDR Inc., Rudee Flipper, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Gotham Whale, Wildlife Conservation Society, FL Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, GA Department of Natural Resources, and Cape May Whale Watch.

Progress & Results

The web-based catalog is complete and available for use and collaboration via the OBIS-SEAMAP portal. A draft manuscript is also being developed for publication.