Evidence for increases in Antarctic blue whales based on Bayesian modelling

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Marine Mammal Science

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University of Cape Town

Antarctic blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus intermedia) are the largest and formerly most abundant blue whale subspecies, but were hunted to near extinction last century. Estimated whaling mortality was unsustainable from 1928 to 1972 (except during 1942–1944), depleting them from 239,000 (95% interval 202,000–311,000) to a low of 360 (150–840) in 1973. Obtaining statistical evidence for subsequent increases has proved difficult due to their scarcity. We fitted Bayesian models to three sighting series (1968–2001), constraining maximum rates of increase to 12% per annum. These models indicated that Antarctic blue whales are increasing at a mean rate of 7.3% per annum (1.4%–11.6%). Informative priors based on blue whale biology (4.3%, SD = 1.9%) and a Bayesian hierarchical meta-analysis of increase rates in other blue whale populations (−3%, SD = 11.6%), suggest plausible increase rates are lower (although the latter has wide intervals), but a meta-analysis of other mysticetes obtains similar rates of increase (6.7%, SD = 4.0%). Possible biases affecting the input abundance estimates are discussed. Although Antarctic blue whales appear to have been increasing since Sovier illegal whaling ended in 1972, they still need to be protected-their estimated 1996 population size, 1,700 (860–2,900), was just 0.7% (0.3%–1.3%) of the pre-exploitation level.