Scientists in Scotland, Canada and the US have proposed a new method to identify priority areas for whale conservation. The team's findings, published in Animal Conservation, suggest that even small protected areas, identified through feeding behaviour, can benefit highly mobile marine predators such as killer whales.
"There are enormous challenges associated with setting conservation priorities for such mobile and migratory species as whales," said lead author Erin Ashe, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. "However the topic was important enough to bring together 200 managers, scientists, and government and NGO representatives from 40 countries for the first International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas."
The annual censuses conducted by the Center for Whale Research indicate that the endangered southern resident killer whale population found in the waters of British Columbia, Canada and Washington State, USA now numbers only 87 animals. In addition to high contaminant levels, food limitation and repeated disturbance from boats represent serious threats to the whales' recovery.
Throughout the study, co-authored with Drs Dawn Noren, NOAA NMFS Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Rob Williams, University of Washington, Ashe mapped locations where killer whales were observed feeding.
"Protecting even small patches of water can provide conservation benefits, as long as we choose the spots wisely," said Ashe. "We followed individually recognisable whales for hours on end and mapped where they were engaged in resting, feeding and social activities."
The team realised that feeding habitat is important to these whales for two reasons. Chinook salmon, the preferred prey of the whales, has also declined in the region and the whales are thought to be food-limited. Also, killer whales are more responsive to whale watching boat traffic when engaged in feeding activities than when they are
|Contact: Ben Norman|