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Marine Mammal Research News:

Harbour seals respond differently to pulses of out-migrating coho and Chinook salmon smolts 

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Sneak peak into the lives of killer whales

UBC researchers captured some amazing underwater video this week from the back of a killer whale showing a pod of killer whales travelling and interacting together. Read Article 


Bowhead whales MMRUBowhead whales feed year-round in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut

Satellite telemetry and time-depth recorders are providing new and surprising insights into the secret lives of bowhead whales

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A Window into the Lives of Resident Killer Whales

This summer, a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia, together with the Hakai Institute, set out to determine how fish-eating killer whales find their food, and whether there is a shortage of Chinook salmon available to killer whales in the Salish Sea.  Here is a peek into what the researchers saw.


Growth and development of North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus).
Agbayani, S., S.M.E. Fortune and A.W. Trites. 2020.
Journal of Mammalogy 101:742-754.
Understanding variability in growth patterns of marine mammals provides insights into the health of individuals and status of populations. Body growth of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) has been described for particular life stages, but has not been quantified across all ages. We derived a comprehensive growth equation for gray whales by fitting a two-phased growth model to age-specific length data of eastern North Pacific gray whales that were captured, stranded, or harvested between 1926 and 1997. To predict mass-at-age, we used the allometric relationship between mass and length. We found that on average (± SD), calves were 4.6 ± 0.094 m and 972 ± 27 kg at birth, and reached 8.53 ± 0.098 m and 7,645 ± 162 kg by the end of their first year of life (n = 118). Thus, calves almost double (2×) in length and octuple (8×) in mass while nursing, and are effectively about two-thirds of their asymptotic adult length and one-third of their maximum mass when weaned. The large sample of aged individuals (n = 730) indicates that gray whales live up to ~48 years and have a life expectancy of < 30 years. Adult females attain a mean (± SD) asymptotic size of 13.2 ± 0.054 m and 20,706 ± 249 kg, while the smaller males average 12.6 ± 0.054 m and 19,812 ± 249 kg at ~40 years of age. Females are thereby ~4% longer and heavier than males. These age-specific estimates of body size can be used to estimate food requirements and assess nutritional status of individuals.

keywords     eastern gray whale, growth curves, length, life expectancy, longevity, mass, morphometrics, Putter model, sexual dimorphism
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Harbour seals responded differently to pulses of out-migrating coho and Chinook smolts.
Allegue, H., A.C. Thomas, Y. Liu, and A.W. Trites. 2020.
Marine Ecology Progress Series 647:21-227.
There is increasing evidence that predation by harbour seals on out-migrating salmon smolts may be responsible for the low return of adult coho and Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea. However, little attention has been given to understanding where and when this predation occurs, and the extent to which it might be conducted by few or many seals in the population. We equipped 17 harbour seals with data-loggers to track seal movements, and used accelerometry to infer prey encounter events (PEE) following the release of ~384,000 coho (May 4th) and ~3 million Chinook smolts (May 14th) into the Big Qualicum River. We found a small proportion (5.7%) of all PEE occurred in the estuary where salmon smolts entered the ocean-and that only one-quarter of the seals actively fed there. PEE counts increased in the estuary after both species of smolts were released. However, the response of the seals was less synchronous and occurred over a greater range of depths following the release of the smaller-bodied and more abundant Chinook smolts. Harbour seals feeding in the estuary appeared to target coho smolts at the beginning of May, but appeared to pursue predators of Chinook smolts in mid-May. PEE counts in the estuary increased as tide height rose, and were higher at dusk and night-especially during full moonlight. Such fine-scale behavioural information about harbour seals in relation to pulses of out-migrating smolts can be used to design mitigation strategies to reduce predation pressure by seals on salmon populations.

keywords     predation, salmon, harbour seals, coho, Chinook, data-loggers, biologging, accelerometry, accelerometers, prey encounters, estuary, size selection, mitigation, PIT tags
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Prey composition impacts lipid and protein digestibility in northern fur seals, Callorhinus ursinus.
Diaz Gomez, M., D.A.S. Rosen, I.P. Forster and A.W. Trites. 2020.
Canadian Journal of Zoology 68:681-689.
Pinnipeds have specific macronutrient (protein, lipid) requirements to satisfy physiological functions, yet little is known about how diet characteristics affect macronutrient digestibility. We measured relative and absolute lipid and protein digestibility in six female northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus (Linnaeus 1758)) fed eight experimental diets composed variously of four prey species (Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii Valenciennes in Cuvier and Valenciennes 1847), walleye pollock (Gadus chalcogrammus Pallas 1814, formerly Theragra chalcogrammus (Pallas 1814)), capelin (Mallotus villosus (Müller 1776) and magister armhook squid (Berryteuthis magisterial (Berry 1913)). We quantified how digestibility was affected by proximate composition of the diet (%lipid or protein), levels of food mass and macronutrient intake, and tested for any potential benefit of multi-species diets. Overall, digestibility of both protein and lipid were high across diets, although macronutrient retention of lipids (96.0–98.4%) was significantly higher than protein (95.7–96.7%) for all but the two highest protein diets. Increased levels of protein intake resulted in increased protein retention, but decreased lipid digestibility. There was no evidence that mixed-species diets provide greater macronutrient digestibility over single-species diets. The results suggest that high to moderate lipid diets are more beneficial to northern fur seals as they lead to increased levels of lipid retention without large decreases in protein digestibility. This raises concerns that dietary factors may be contributing to the population declines of northern fur seals in the Bering Sea.

keywords     Northern fur seal, Callorhinus ursinus, diet composition, macronutrients, lipid digestibility, protein digestibility
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Seasonal diving and foraging behaviour of Eastern Canada-West Greenland bowhead whales.
Fortune, S. M. E., S. H. Ferguson, A. W. Trites, B. LeBlanc, V. LeMay, J. M. Hudson and M. F. Baumgartner. 2020.
Marine Ecology Progress Series 643:197-217.
Climate change may affect the foraging success of bowhead whales Balaena mysticetus by altering the diversity and abundance of zooplankton species available as food. However, assessing climate-induced impacts first requires documenting feeding conditions under current environmental conditions. We collected seasonal movement and dive-behaviour data from 25 Eastern Canada-West Greenland bowheads instrumented with time-depth telemetry tags and used state-space models to examine whale movements and dive behaviours. Zooplankton samples were also collected in Cumberland Sound (CS) to determine species composition and biomass. We found that CS was used seasonally by 14 of the 25 tagged whales. Area-restricted movement was the dominant behaviour in CS, suggesting that the tagged whales allocated considerable time to feeding. Prey sampling data suggested that bowheads were exploiting energy-rich Arctic copepods such as Calanus glacialis and C. hyperboreus during summer. Dive behaviour changed seasonally in CS. Most notably, probable feeding dives were substantially shallower during spring and summer compared to fall and winter. These seasonal changes in dive depths likely reflect changes in the vertical distribution of calanoid copepods, which are known to suspend development and overwinter at depth during fall and winter when availability of their phytoplankton prey is presumed to be lower. Overall, CS appears to be an important year-round foraging habitat for bowheads, but is particularly important during the late summer and fall. Whether CS will remain a reliable feeding area for bowhead whales under climate change is not yet known.

keywords     Climate change, zooplankton, prey availability, foraging behavior, biologging, state-space model, bowhead whale, copepods, Calanus
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Body growth of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) revisited.
Fortune, S. M. E., M. J. Moore, W. L. Perryman and A. W. Trites. 2020.
Marine Mammal Science. DOI: 10.1111/mms.12753
Knowing size‐at‐age is important for determining food requirements and making inferences about the nutritional status of individuals and their populations. Accurate growth curves are also needed to quantify drug dosages to treat wounded or entangled animals. However, body sizes are often based on small numbers of measured animals that must be improved as new data become available. We updated an existing body growth model for North Atlantic right whales (NARWs) using new data from dead animals and from older individuals. Our models indicate that NARWs attain mean lengths and weights of 4.3 m and 1.0 mt at birth, and 13.1 m and 31.7 mt when sexually mature. Calves more than double their length and attain nearly three‐quarters of their asymptotic adult size during their first year of life. Overall, our length estimates agreed well with previous estimates, but our mass‐at‐age values were considerably higher. These differences revealed that necropsy data used alone in allometric models underestimate mass due possibly to several of the stranded animals in the database having been chronically entangled and in poor body condition. Augmenting the database with healthier individuals, such as harvested North Pacific right whales, yielded mass predictions that reflect both healthy and unhealthy individuals.
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Age-and sex-specific movement, behaviour and habitat-use patterns of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in the Eastern Canadian Arctic.
Fortune, S. M. E., B. G. Young and S. H. Ferguson. 2020.
Polar Biology 43:1725-1744.
As an annual ice-associated species, bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) are known to move northward in mid-to-late March and southward in early winter while following the annual cycle of sea ice decay and formation. We sought to determine when and where different demographic groups of Eastern Canada-West Greenland bowhead whales foraged throughout their range and what seasonal patterns occurred in their migratory and residency behaviour over a 16-year time period (2001-2016). Fifty-nine bowhead whales were equipped with satellite telemetry tags and hierarchical switching-state-space models (HSSSM) were used to infer probable foraging and travelling behaviour. Overall, 18,294 locations were predicted with the HSSSM and 70% of the locations (n = 12,784) were associated with probable foraging behaviour and 15% (n = 2709) included movements consistent with travelling behaviour. Both males and females were found to reside in Hudson Strait during winter. Females showed a slight preference for more northern regions (e.g. Gulf of Boothia) for feeding during summer compared with males who appeared to spend more time in more southern foraging grounds (e.g. Cumberland Sound). Females in Gulf of Boothia were significantly larger than females in Cumberland Sound but males were of comparable sizes in both regions. Lancaster Sound had the lowest occupancy, representing less than 0.8% of all HSSSM locations (n = 154) suggesting that this area may not be preferred by subadult male or female bowhead whales. Understanding whale movement behaviour will assist in anticipating patterns in distribution shifts associated with warming.
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Predator-prey interactions between harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) and Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus spp.) in the Salish Sea.
Nelson, B.W. 2020.
In Department of Zoology. PhD thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. 209 pages
Populations of Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and coho salmon (O. kisutch) have experienced significant declines in abundance and productivity over the last 50 years in the Salish Sea as harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) recovered from hunting and culling. Some have hypothesized that increased predation by seals may be responsible for the declines in salmon survival, and their failure to recover after reductions in fishing effort. However, it is not known if these correlations exist for every population of salmon in the Salish Sea, or how many young Chinook and coho salmon are consumed by seals each year. I developed mathematical and statistical models to investigate the potential causal relationship between seal predation and declines in Chinook and coho salmon populations in the Salish Sea. I also used simulation modeling to evaluate outcomes that may result if managers reduced British Columbia’s harbour seal population to promote the recovery of salmon populations. I found that harbour seal densities were strongly negatively associated with productivity of most wild Chinook salmon populations in the Salish Sea and Washington Coast that were included in the study. Integrating recently collected seal diet data with a novel predation model indicates that large numbers of juvenile Chinook and coho salmon are eaten by seals, and that predation-related mortality has likely increased significantly over the last 50 years. The results of my simulation model suggest both lethal removals and contraception could reduce the seal population, but that important tradeoffs exist between the two approaches. Overall, my findings increase understanding of the role that marine mammal predation plays in the early marine life stage of juvenile salmon, and identifies potential outcomes and tradeoffs of actively managing predator populations.

keywords     predation, harbor seal, salmon, coho, Chinook, culling, hunting, modelling, hatcheries, diet, contraception, juvenile salmon, smolts, management
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Predator control on land and at sea: a call for common standards of assessment.
Nunny, L., C. Bautista, S. Palazón, A.W. Trites, D. van Liere, and M.P. Simmonds. 2020.
Carnivore Prevention Damage News. 20:13-19.
Carnivores come into conflict with humans when they cause damage to livestock, crops and other prop­erty. However, conflict is not only a land-based issue. As in terrestrial settings, human-wildlife conflict in the marine environment can have signif­icant financial repercussions and present animal wel­fare issues. To encourage sharing of knowledge on alternative approaches to managing wildlife conflict situations, a work­shop entitled Predator controls: lessons from land to sea was convened at the World Marine Mammal Con­ference in Barcelona, Spain in December 2019. Workshop participants concluded that: 1. Whilst there appears to be little transfer of an­ti-predator technologies between land and sea, people who farm and fish have common issues in­cluding ensuring the effectiveness of the measures deployed. This warrants a formal assessment of the common issues and solutions and a proper assess­ment of their welfare implications. 2. The welfare implications of conflict mitigation methods concerned many attending the workshop. How control methods impact predator welfare de­pends on the method used and how it is applied. 3. Standard protocols to assess the welfare and effec­tiveness of conflict mitigation techniques need to be developed and endorsed by the international community and could apply equally to land and sea situations. The approach used by Sharp and Saunders (2011) was noted as promising, as is the welfare assessment tool developed by the Interna­tional Whaling Commission. 4. Reducing conflict requires a thorough under­standing of the situation, including socio-eco­nomic aspects, determining whether the conflict is limited to individual problem animals or is more pervasive and evaluating how the problem at the site has developed. In addition, it is necessary to determine whether the conflict is more prevalent at a particular time of year, in a particular location or under certain ecological conditions or geopo­litical circumstances. Conflict resolution requires gathering as much in­formation as possible about the conflict in order to take appropriate actions and is an area where marine experts can learn from the experiences of terrestrial experts and vice versa. For this reason, providing plat­forms to marine and terrestrial experts to exchange knowledge and experience can benefit the conser­vation and welfare of wild predators on land and in the sea.
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Resting and swimming metabolic rates in juvenile walruses (Odobenus rosmarus).
Rosen, D.A.S. 2020.
Marine Mammal Science, DOI: 10.1111/mms.12743
Changes in Arctic ice conditions have raised concerns regarding potential impacts on energy expenditure and food requirements of walruses. Modelling the repercussions of environmental changes requires accurate species-specific measures of bioenergetic expenditures. This is particularly true for walruses, who have a unique anatomy and foraging ecology from other pinnipeds. This study measured resting metabolic rate (RMR) and subsurface swimming metabolism in two juvenile walruses over a 13-month period. The walruses had relatively low RMR compared to studies of other young pinnipeds. RMR was greater for the male than the female, as expected given his larger size; the reverse was true on a mass-specific basis. There was also considerable variability in RMR for each walrus during the year that could not be accounted for by changes in body mass. Metabolism while swimming was about twice RMR, and locomotor costs were higher than generally predicted for other marine mammals. The lower calculated swimming efficiency may reflect the fact that walruses are not “high velocity” pursuit predators. The estimates of metabolic expenditure obtained in this study for young walruses are invaluable for quantifying the energetic consequences of behavioral changes induced by environmental shifts in the wild.

keywords     bioenergetics, metabolism, swimming, walrus
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Predation by Pacific great blue herons on juvenile salmon.
Sherker, Z.T. 2020.
In Resources, Environment, and Sustainability. M.Sc. Thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. 68 pages
An array of foragers prey on salmon in rivers and estuaries while salmon smolts out-migrate from their natal streams-and may account, in part, for the poor returns of adult salmon to the Salish Sea. However, the Pacific great blue heron (Ardea herodias fanning) has not been identified as a predator of smolts despite being regularly seen near salmon streams. I investigated the role that herons may be playing in the depredation of salmon by scanning fecal remains under heron nests for Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags that had been implanted in wild and hatchery-reared salmon smolts from 2008-2018. These nests were located in three heron rookeries that were within 35 km of the mouth of the Cowichan, Big Qualicum, and Capilano Rivers. Using a mobile PIT antenna, I recovered 1,199 smolt tags, representing a minimum annual predation rate of 0.3-1.3% of all smolts in the three rivers. Correcting for tags consumed by herons and defecated outside of the rookery raised the estimated proportion of smolts to 0.7-3.2% of the outmigrating fish, but predation rates as high as 6% were documented during a low river-flow year in the Cowichan River. The distribution and timing of tag depositions under the heron nests indicated that most great blue herons prey on salmon smolts and that consumption occurs in late spring during the chick-rearing phase of the breeding season. Energetic analyses suggest that smolt consumption provides a substantial proportion of the heron chick diet during a time of peak energy demand. Predation on smolts occurred primarily in the lower rivers and upper estuaries. Smaller salmon smolts were significantly more susceptible to heron predation in all systems, and predation rates were comparable between wild and hatchery-reared smolts. Recovering so many tags from smolts at heron rookeries was unexpected and indicates that great blue herons are a new predator of wild and hatchery-reared juvenile salmon. Locations of heron rookeries relative to salmon bearing rivers are likely good predictors of heron impacts on local salmon runs, and a potential means to assess coast-wide effects of great blue herons on salmon recovery.
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