Species distribution modelling of Bryde’s whales, humpback whales, southern right whales, and sperm whales in the Southern African region to inform their conservation in expanding economies

23 Dec 2020

In southern African waters, information about species distribution and habitat preferences of many cetacean species is limited, despite the recent economic growth that may affect them. We determined the relative importance of eight environmental variables (bathymetry, distance to shore, slope, chlorophyll-a, salinity, eastwards sea water velocity, northwards sea water velocity and sea surface temperature) as drivers of seasonal habitat preferences of Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera brydei), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Using presence only data from multiple sources, we constructed predictive species distribution models (SDMs) consisting of ensembles of seven algorithms for these species during both summer and winter. Predicted distribution for all cetaceans was high in southern Africa and, in particular, within the South African Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Predictive models indicated a more pronounced seasonal variation for humpback, sperm and southern right whales than for Bryde’s whales. Southern right whales occurred closer to shore during winter, humpback whales were more likely to occur along the east coast in winter and the west coast in summer, and sperm whales were more concentrated off the shelf in winter. Our study shows that ensemble models using historical, incidental and scientific data, in conjunction with modern environmental variables, can provide baseline knowledge on important environmental drivers of cetacean distribution for conservation purposes. Results of this study can further be used to help develop marine spatial plans and identify important marine mammal areas.