The effect of sea-ice loss on beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in West Greenland

M. P. Heide-Jørgensen, K. L. Laidre, David Louis Borchers, Tiago A. Marques, H. Stern, M. Simon

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45 Citations (Scopus)


An aerial survey was conducted to estimate the abundance of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) on their wintering ground in West Greenland in March–April 2006 and 2008. The survey was conducted as a double platform aerial line transect survey, and sampled approximately 17% of the total survey area of ca. 125 000 km2. The abundance of belugas was 10 595 (95% confidence interval 4904–24 650). The largest abundance was found at the northern part of Store Hellefiske Bank, at the eastern edge of the Baffin Bay pack ice, a pattern similar to that found in eight systematic surveys conducted since 1981. A clear relationship between decreasing sea-ice cover and increasing offshore distance of beluga sightings was established from all previous surveys, suggesting that belugas expand their distribution westward as new areas on the banks of West Greenland open up earlier in spring with reduced sea-ice coverage or early annual ice recession. This is in contrast to the relatively confined distribution of belugas near the coast in limited open areas in the early 1980s, when sea-ice cover was greater. However, the effects of the changes in coastal availability of belugas can also be observed with the correlation between catches from the local Inuit hunt and sea-ice cover, where the catches increased significantly with increasing sea-ice coverage during the period 1954–2006. These results, based on nearly 30 years of dedicated survey effort, are among the first available evidence showing a shift in distribution of an Arctic cetacean in response to changes in sea-ice coverage.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)198-208
Number of pages11
JournalPolar Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • Beluga
  • Climate change
  • Line transect
  • Sea ice
  • West Greenland


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