Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) were hunted commercially in Canada's Pacific region until 1966. Depleted to an estimated 1,400 individuals throughout the North Pacific, humpback whales are listed as Threatened under Canada's Species at Risk Act (SARA) and Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. We conducted an 8-year photo-identification study to monitor humpback whale usage of a coastal fjord system in British Columbia (BC), Canada that was recently proposed as candidate critical habitat for the species under SARA. This participatory research program built collaborations among First Nations, environmental non-governmental organizations and academics. The study site, including the territorial waters of Gitga'at First Nation, is an important summertime feeding destination for migratory humpback whales, but is small relative to the population's range. We estimated abundance and survivorship using mark-recapture methods using photographs of naturally marked individuals. Abundance of humpback whales in the region was large, relative to the site's size, and generally increased throughout the study period. The resulting estimate of adult survivorship (0.979, 95% CI: 0.914, 0.995) is at the high end of previously reported estimates. A high rate of resights provides new evidence for inter-annual site fidelity to these local waters. Habitat characteristics of our study area are considered ecologically significant and unique, and this should be considered as regulatory agencies consider proposals for high-volume crude oil and liquefied natural gas tanker traffic through the area. Monitoring population recovery of a highly mobile, migratory species is daunting for low-cost, community-led science. Focusing on a small, important subset of the animals' range can make this challenge more tractable. Given low statistical power and high variability, our community is considering simpler ecological indicators of population health, such as the number of individuals harmed or killed each year by human activities, including ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
Cites: Biometrika. 1965 Jun;52:249-5914341277
Cites: Biol Lett. 2011 Apr 23;7(2):299-30220943678
United States and Canadian governments have responded to legal requirements to reduce human-induced whale mortality via vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear by implementing a suite of regulatory actions. We analyzed the spatial and temporal patterns of mortality of large whales in the Northwest Atlantic (23.5°N to 48.0°N), 1970 through 2009, in the context of management changes. We used a multinomial logistic model fitted by maximum likelihood to detect trends in cause-specific mortalities with time. We compared the number of human-caused mortalities with U.S. federally established levels of potential biological removal (i.e., species-specific sustainable human-caused mortality). From 1970 through 2009, 1762 mortalities (all known) and serious injuries (likely fatal) involved 8 species of large whales. We determined cause of death for 43% of all mortalities; of those, 67% (502) resulted from human interactions. Entanglement in fishing gear was the primary cause of death across all species (n = 323), followed by natural causes (n = 248) and vessel strikes (n = 171). Established sustainable levels of mortality were consistently exceeded in 2 species by up to 650%. Probabilities of entanglement and vessel-strike mortality increased significantly from 1990 through 2009. There was no significant change in the local intensity of all or vessel-strike mortalities before and after 2003, the year after which numerous mitigation efforts were enacted. So far, regulatory efforts have not reduced the lethal effects of human activities to large whales on a population-range basis, although we do not exclude the possibility of success of targeted measures for specific local habitats that were not within the resolution of our analyses. It is unclear how shortfalls in management design or compliance relate to our findings. Analyses such as the one we conducted are crucial in critically evaluating wildlife-management decisions. The results of these analyses can provide managers with direction for modifying regulated measures and can be applied globally to mortality-driven conservation issues.
Cites: Nature. 2001 Nov 29;414(6863):537-4111734852
Marine mammals are indicator species of the Arctic ecosystem and an integral component of the traditional Inuit diet. The potential neurotoxic effects of increased mercury (Hg) in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas), ringed seals (Pusa hispida), and polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are not clear. We assessed the risk of Hg-associated neurotoxicity to these species by comparing their brain Hg concentrations with threshold concentrations for toxic endpoints detected in laboratory animals and field observations: clinical symptoms (>6.75 mg/kg wet weight (ww)), neuropathological signs (>4 mg/kg ww), neurochemical changes (>0.4 mg/kg ww), and neurobehavioral changes (>0.1mg/kg ww). The total Hg (THg) concentrations in the cerebellum and frontal lobe of ringed seals and polar bears were 3mg/kg ww. Our results suggest that brain THg levels in polar bears are below levels that induce neurobehavioral effects as reported in the literature, while THg concentrations in ringed seals are within the range that elicit neurobehavioral effects and individual ringed seals exceed the threshold for neurochemical changes. The relatively high THg concentration in beluga whales exceeds all of the neurotoxicity thresholds assessed. High brain selenium (Se):Hg molar ratios were observed in all three species, suggesting that Se could protect the animals from Hg-associated neurotoxicity. This assessment was limited by several factors that influence neurotoxic effects in animals, including: animal species; form of Hg in the brain; and interactions with modifiers of Hg-associated toxicity, such as Se. Comparing brain Hg concentrations in wildlife with concentrations of appropriate laboratory studies can be used as a tool for risk characterization of the neurotoxic effects of Hg in Arctic marine mammals.
Localization and tracking of vocalizing marine mammals are powerful tools for understanding and mitigating the impacts of anthropogenic stressors such as vessel noise on habitat use of cetaceans. A large-aperture hydrophone network has been installed in the Kitimat Fjord System, an ecologically, culturally, and economically valued marine environment in northern British Columbia, Canada. This network consists of four synchronized bottom-mounted hydrophones that permanently record and radio-transmit data to a land-based laboratory. An automated system has been developed which includes routines to localize transient bio-acoustic signals from three or more streaming hydrophones in near real-time. These routines comprise the correlation of hydrophone signals, the construction of a time lag model, and signal localization and error estimation from a spatial likelihood surface. The localization method was tested experimentally and subsequently applied to vocalizations from humpback whales, fin whales, and killer whales. Refractive and reflective sound propagation effects in the confined fjords are assessed using ray tracing propagation models. Automated localization results are compared to ground-truth data and shown to provide good accuracy.
Baleen is an incrementally-growing tissue of balaenopteran whales which preserves relatively well over time in museums and some archeological sites, and, therefore might be useful for studies examining long-term changes of metal levels in whales. This study examined Hg and stable C and N isotopic composition of baleen plates of the North Atlantic minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), which continues to be a food source for people in Greenland and elsewhere. We compared the Hg levels and stable isotopes of major tissues (kidney, liver and muscle) with those of baleen plates to see whether baleen could be used as a biomonitor of variations of Hg intake and diet both between individuals and within individuals over time. Mercury was significantly correlated with concentrations in all tissues (kidney, liver and muscle). Stable C and N isotopes in baleen were generally similar to those of muscle, which reflects the recent (approximately one month) feeding of the whale, but in some individuals there were significant differences between baleen and muscle. Sectioning of baleen into 1 cm longitudinal increments showed that these differences were due to marked dietary shifts by some individuals over time that had been recorded in the baleen but were lost from the muscle record. Whole baleen C and N isotopes were better correlated with tissue Hg levels, suggesting that baleen may provide a more reliable indicator of long-term average diet, which in turn may be better related to Hg accumulation in tissues than the shorter-term diet record contained in muscle.
While hearing is the primary sensory modality for odontocetes, there are few data addressing variation within a natural population. This work describes the hearing ranges (4-150 kHz) and sensitivities of seven apparently healthy, wild beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) during a population health assessment project that captured and released belugas in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The baseline hearing abilities and subsequent variations were addressed. Hearing was measured using auditory evoked potentials (AEPs). All audiograms showed a typical cetacean U-shape; substantial variation (>30 dB) was found between most and least sensitive thresholds. All animals heard well, up to at least 128 kHz. Two heard up to 150 kHz. Lowest auditory thresholds (35-45 dB) were identified in the range 45-80 kHz. Greatest differences in hearing abilities occurred at both the high end of the auditory range and at frequencies of maximum sensitivity. In general, wild beluga hearing was quite sensitive. Hearing abilities were similar to those of belugas measured in zoological settings, reinforcing the comparative importance of both settings. The relative degree of variability across the wild belugas suggests that audiograms from multiple individuals are needed to properly describe the maximum sensitivity and population variance for odontocetes. Hearing measures were easily incorporated into field-based settings. This detailed examination of hearing abilities in wild Bristol Bay belugas provides a basis for a better understanding of the potential impact of anthropogenic noise on a noise-sensitive species. Such information may help design noise-limiting mitigation measures that could be applied to areas heavily influenced and inhabited by endangered belugas.
Autonomous passive acoustic recorders were deployed to record sounds of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in the southeast Beaufort Sea for periods of 30-55 days during the late summer, open-water seasons of 2008-2010. Recordings were made in three areas licensed for hydrocarbon exploration, spanning the continental slope and adjacent outer shelf, and in a shallow inner-shelf area where bowheads have been observed congregating to feed in recent decades. Bowhead sounds were counted in samples comprising 10% of each recorded hour. In mid-August and September in all 3 years, the rate of bowhead calling at outer shelf sites exceeded that at adjacent continental slope sites by one to two orders of magnitude. Higher rates of calling occurred on the slope in late July and early August than at later dates. Calling rates varied by an order of magnitude between years in the one area that was monitored in different years. The highest rates of calling occurred on the inner shelf, offshore of the northern Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. These trends are consistent with patterns of habitat use previously reported from aerial surveys in this and nearby areas of the Beaufort Sea and with the results of satellite tagging studies.
As zooplanktivorous predators, bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) must routinely locate patches of prey that are energy-rich enough to meet their metabolic needs. However, little is known about how the quality and quantity of prey might influence their feeding behaviours. We addressed this question using a new approach that included: (1) multi-scale biologging and unmanned aerial system observations of bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut (Canada), and (2) an optical plankton counter (OPC) and net collections to identify and enumerate copepod prey species through the water column. The OPC data revealed two prey layers comprised almost exclusively of lipid-rich calanoid copepods. The deep layer contained fewer, but larger, particles (10% greater overall biomass) than the shallow prey layer. Dive data indicated that the whales conducted long deep Square-shaped dives (80% of dives; averaging depth of 260.4 m) and short shallow Square-shaped dives (16%; averaging depth of 22.5 m) to feed. The whales tended to dive proportionally more to the greater biomass of zooplankton that occurred at depth. Combining behavioural recordings with prey sampling showed a more complex feeding ecology than previously understood, and provides a means to evaluate the energetic balance of individuals under current environmental conditions.
Between 1984 and 1993, visual and acoustic methods were combined to census the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus, population. Passive acoustic location was based on arrival-time differences of transient bowhead sounds detected on sparse arrays of three to five hydrophones distributed over distances of 1.5-4.5 km along the ice edge. Arrival-time differences were calculated from either digital cross correlation of spectrograms (old method), or digital cross correlation of time waveforms (new method). Acoustic calibration was conducted in situ in 1985 at five sites with visual site position determined by triangulation using two theodolites. The discrepancy between visual and acoustic locations was