Spatial and social connectivity of fish-eating “Resident” killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the northern North Pacific
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- Fearnbach, H., Durban, J.W., Ellifrit, D.K. et al. Mar Biol (2014) 161: 459. doi:10.1007/s00227-013-2351-0
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The productive North Pacific waters of the Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea support a high density of fish-eating “Resident” type killer whales (Orcinus orca), which overlap in distribution with commercial fisheries, producing both direct and indirect interactions. To provide a spatial context for these interactions, we analyzed a 10-year dataset of 3,058 whale photo-identifications from 331 encounters within a large (linear ~4,000 km) coastal study area to investigate the ranging and social patterns of 532 individually identifiable whales photographed in more than one encounter. Although capable of large-scale movements (maximum 1,443 km), we documented ranges generally <200 km, with high site fidelity across summer sampling intervals and also re-sightings during a winter survey. Bayesian analysis of pair-wise associations identified four defined clusters, likely representing groupings of stable matrilines, with distinct ranging patterns, that combined to form a large network of associated whales that ranged across most of the study area. This provides evidence of structure within the Alaska stock of Resident killer whales, important for evaluating ecosystem and fisheries impacts. This network included whales known to depredate groundfish from longline fisheries, and we suggest that such large-scale connectivity has facilitated the spread of depredation.