Bellwethers of change: population modelling of North Pacific humpback whales from 2002 through 2021 reveals shift from recovery to climate response

R Soc Open Sci. 2024 Feb 28;11(2):231462. doi: 10.1098/rsos.231462. eCollection 2024 Feb.


For the 40 years after the end of commercial whaling in 1976, humpback whale populations in the North Pacific Ocean exhibited a prolonged period of recovery. Using mark-recapture methods on the largest individual photo-identification dataset ever assembled for a cetacean, we estimated annual ocean-basin-wide abundance for the species from 2002 through 2021. Trends in annual estimates describe strong post-whaling era population recovery from 16 875 (± 5955) in 2002 to a peak abundance estimate of 33 488 (± 4455) in 2012. An apparent 20% decline from 2012 to 2021, 33 488 (± 4455) to 26 662 (± 4192), suggests the population abruptly reached carrying capacity due to loss of prey resources. This was particularly evident for humpback whales wintering in Hawai'i, where, by 2021, estimated abundance had declined by 34% from a peak in 2013, down to abundance levels previously seen in 2006, and contrasted to an absence of decline in Mainland Mexico breeding humpbacks. The strongest marine heatwave recorded globally to date during the 2014-2016 period appeared to have altered the course of species recovery, with enduring effects. Extending this time series will allow humpback whales to serve as an indicator species for the ecosystem in the face of a changing climate.

Keywords: abundance estimation; carrying capacity; climate change; environmental variables; marine heatwave; mark–recapture modelling.

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.7075479