Aerial surveys are sometimes used to assess the densities of wide-ranging whales, as well as changes in their distributions in response to human activity. Such surveys also provide data used to estimate numbers of animals exposed to different received levels of seismic sound, as required by regulators. However, estimates of abundance are often biased because they fail to account for the effects of seismic operations on the surfacing and diving behavior of whales. Our objective was to determine the extent to which analyses of the distribution of bowhead whales Balaena mysticetus are affected by changes in visual ‘availability’ caused by seismic operations. We used aerial survey data collected during seismic operations in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea from late August to early October 2008 and fit spatial density surface models to bowhead sighting data to predict whale density in an ensonified area. We also incorporated availability correction factors to determine the sensitivity of density estimates to changes in surfacing and diving behavior caused by seismic operations. The influence of altered whale behavior was then evaluated by comparing a series of realistic simulated scenarios in which models incorporated undisturbed or seismic disturbance-related correction factors. Results suggest that the numbers of bowhead whales present in the vicinity of seismic operations during the bowhead autumn migration are underestimated if the behavioral effects of seismic operations on whales are ignored. Our study highlights the importance of accounting for changes in whale behavior that can affect sightability when estimating numbers and distribution of whales in the vicinity of industrial activity.
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