“Cetaceans are an important natural resource in the Azores archipelago. So far, 28 species have been recorded in the Region indicating that, most probably, cetaceans play a key role in the functioning of the Azores marine ecosystem . Historically cetaceans were hunted for subsistence or, in the case of the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), to sustain a whaling industry for over a century. Presently they are in the base of a thriving cetacean watching industry, which moves over 50 million euros per year (A. Ressureição, pers comm.). It is therefore clear that cetaceans provide critical ecosystem services to the region, either directly, as the targets of an important eco-tourism industry, or indirectly by their potential role in maintaining the integrity of marine ecosystems. Notwithstanding, the patterns and underlying mechanisms of cetacean presence and distribution in the region are still not understood.
Understanding the drivers for the occurrence and distribution of cetaceans in the Azores, and how ecological interactions can influence them, is essential to forecast how natural and human-related environmental changes can affect the resilience of the group and the ecosystem services they support. Spatially and temporally accurate cetacean distribution maps will assist the whale watching industry to efficiently distribute their effort in order to increase observation success while lowering direct impact to the animals. Knowledge of the distribution of cetaceans is also fundamental to predict and manage potential impact from other activities (shipping, geo-morphologic surveys, fisheries, extraction of geological resources, etc.) to enable implementing a sustainable, and yet prospering marine-based economy.
Currently, most efforts to predict cetacean distribution (both at the regional level and elsewhere) use species distribution models (SDM) that take into account cetacean occurrence data and environmental predictors. However, ecological relations within and among taxa and information on human activities are rarely taken into account . This project will introduce new approaches into the traditional SDM procedures, to create more realistic models. During the project multispecies models (MSDMs) will be created, taking into account biotic interactions within cetacean guilds, with their prey and other organisms. The effect of anthropogenic stressors will also be modelled. The improvement from including these covariates on model accuracy will be investigated by comparing MSDMs with traditional SDMs.
The MSDMs produced in the scope of this project will become an essential tool for proper marine spatial planning in the Azores, fostering the sustainable implementation of the blue growth agenda. Additionally, the modelling tools developed here will be important not only in relation to cetaceans and to the Azores but also for other taxa and regions.”