Andrea RambeauAlumni
MSc 2008

Dr Andrew Trites

Determining abundance and stock structure for a widespread migratory animal : the case of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in British Columbia, Canada

Developing appropriate management plans for species at risk requires information about their population structure and abundance. For most cetacean populations, few reliable population estimates are available and even fewer distributions have been mapped. Accurate abundance estimates can be determined from capture-recapture data if assumptions are met, however this can be difficult when the animal in question demonstrates both strong site fidelity and large-scale migrations, and different models can result in dramatically different results.

I explored these issues by examining a 15-year dataset (1992-2006) of photo-identifications of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in British Columbia (BC), Canada. I used multiple capture-recapture models to compare how the definition of population and variation in effort affected estimates of population size, and I explored means to correct for these biases. I also considered stock structure by examining individual breeding ground destinations, movement, and localized site-fidelity within BC. Across the six models considered, the BC humpback whale abundance in 2006 ranged between 1,428 and 3,856 individuals. The Lincoln-Petersen estimate (1,428-1,892) likely best described the number of humpback whales in BC during summer 2006.

The effort-standardized Jolly-Seber model (1,970-2,331) is more representative of the larger population of humpback whales that uses or passes through BC over multiple years. Ultimately, selecting the best estimation model requires defining the ‘population’ of interest and accounting for spatial and temporal distribution of sampling effort. British Columbia provides feeding habitat and a potential migratory corridor for whales that breed in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Forty-four percent of the 1,986 humpback whales considered were sighted in BC in more than one year.

Identifications were highest from May to October, with a peak in September, but humpback whales were present in BC in all months of the year. Whales showed strong site fidelity with a median re-sighting distance of 75 km between years, and a maximum re-sighting distance that ranged from 0.41 km to 842 km. Matching rate within BC decreased as a function of north-south distance, though no clear north-south boundary could be established. Stock structure of humpback whales in British Columbia is complex and should be considered in managing this population.


Determining abundance and stock structure for a widespread migratory animal : the case of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in British Columbia, Canada. Rambeau, Andrea Louise. 2008. Zoology. Masters Thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. 70 pages (PDF)