Arctic Whale Ecology Study 2013 Cruise Report
The ARCWEST (Arctic Whale Ecology Study) cruise took place on board the R/V Aquila. The cruise began in Kodiak, AK on 13 August 2013 and ended in Kodiak on 18 September 2013. Chief Scientist was Dr. Catherine Berchok from 13 August until 9 September and Jessica Crance from 10 September until 18 September. The survey team consisted of 17 scientists representing eight different laboratories (for full personnel list, see Appendix 1). In summary, a total of 23 passive acoustic and 14 oceanographic moorings were retrieved, and 25 passive acoustic and 17 oceanographic moorings were redeployed. Five satellite tags were deployed on gray whales, four of which transmitted successfully. A total of 48 hydrographic and 32 zooplankton stations were conducted, nine drifters were deployed, 24 hour passive acoustic monitoring (via sonobuoy deployments) occurred, and over 1,500 nm were surveyed for marine mammal and bird observations.
The western Arctic physical climate is rapidly changing. The summer Arctic minimum sea ice extent in September 2012 reached a new record of 3.61 million square kilometers, a further 16% reduction from a record set in 2007 (4.30 million square kilometers). This area was more than 50% less than that of two decades ago. The speed of this ice loss was unexpected, as the consensus of the climate research community was that this level of ice reduction would not be seen for another thirty years. As sea temperature, oceanographic currents, and prey availability are altered by climate change, parallel changes in baleen whale species composition, abundance and distribution are expected (and evidenced already by local knowledge and opportunistic sightings). In addition, the observed northward retreat of the minimum extent of summer sea ice has the potential to create opportunities for the expansion of oil and gas-related exploration and development into previously closed seasons and localities in the Alaskan Arctic. It will also open maritime transportation lanes across the Arctic adding (to a potentially dramatic degree) to the ambient noise in the environment. This combination of increasing anthropogenic impacts, coupled with the steadily increasing abundance and related seasonal range expansion by bowhead (Balaena mysticetus), gray (Eschrichtius robustus), humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), mandates that more complete information on the year-round presence of large whales is needed in the Chukchi Sea planning area. Timing and location of whale migrations may play an important role in assessing where, when or how exploration or access to petroleum reserves may be conducted, to mitigate or minimize the impact on protected species.