Satellite image survey of beluga whales in the southern Kara Sea
The use of satellite imagery to find, count and monitor whales in remote and hard to access areas has shown some promise, but few satellite studies have, as yet, provided substantial conservation outcomes. Recent studies have shown the ability of very high-resolution satellites to detect and count previously surveyed populations of belugas and narwhals in Canada. Here we describe the detection of a large aggregation of a poorly surveyed population of belugas in the southern Kara Sea, Russia, in a region where Soviet whaling is known to have had a heavy toll on belugas. We counted over 1,100 surface belugas using very high-resolution satellite imagery. As only an unknown portion of the belugas can be seen on the surface, accurately converting the surface count to an abundance estimate will need further study, but using the analog of aerial surveys we estimate that this aggregation is between ~1,150–2,870 individuals. Although the species is not currently considered endangered, concern over belugas future population trends is increasing, as the species is reliant on Arctic sea ice, which is rapidly declining due to climate change. This study shows the utility of satellite imagery to discover and monitor new and little-known cetacean populations.
Authors: Fretwell, Peter T. ORCID record for Peter T. Fretwell, Cubaynes, Hannah C. ORCID record for Hannah C. Cubaynes, Shpak, Olga