• Diet and movement of depredating male sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Gulf of Alaska

      Wild, Lauren A.; Mueter, Franz; Straley, Janice; Sigler, Michael; Witteveen, Briana; Andrews, Russ (2020-05)
      Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) remove fish from commercial fishing gear in high latitude foraging grounds. This behavior, known as depredation, occurs in the Gulf of Alaska (GOA) sablefish longline fishery and has increased in frequency and severity since the mid-1990s. Sperm whale foraging ecology and movements in the GOA are poorly understood but are important considerations to how depredation impacts fishery resources and whale behavior. The goals of this dissertation were to use stable isotope analysis to evaluate trophic connections between sperm whales and their prey, estimate the proportional contribution of various prey items to sperm whale diets, and use satellite tag data to evaluate movement and diving behavior of sperm whales in the GOA. Understanding isotopic variability in cetacean skin is important to evaluating dietary information from this tissue; thus, in chapter 1, I first analyzed the stable isotope ratios among layers of cetacean skin to determine how much variability there was within and across layers of cetacean skin. Results showed horizontal layers of cetacean skin to be significantly different isotopically, suggesting evidence of a dietary time series in layers of cetacean skin, where the innermost skin layer represents the most recent diet. These results were used in my second chapter to isolate the most recent diet of sperm whales from the inner layer of skin, and then to estimate proportional contributions of different prey to sperm whale diets. Results showed that the sperm whales sampled prefer sablefish, dogfish, skates, and rockfish, and that the proportional contribution of sablefish to sperm whale diets has increased over the past 15 years as depredation has increased in severity. Chapter three presented an analysis of twenty-nine satellite tags placed on depredating sperm whales in the GOA between 2007 and 2016 to explore movement and diving behavior and how these behaviors may be linked to prey preferences found in chapter 2. Tagged sperm whales in the GOA preferred the continental slope habitat and made long migrations along the slope toward Mexico and the Gulf of California, speeding up and switching behaviors from foraging to transiting when they left the GOA. Dive depths and durations exhibited individual variability and were significantly correlated to light levels, lunar cycles, sablefish fishery catch-per-unit-effort, and seafloor depth. Results suggest diving behavior tracks that of primary groundfish prey items, and dive depths become shallower in areas of high sablefish densities, as inferred from fishery catches, potentially reflecting depredation behavior. Together these results provide a much-improved understanding of the impact of depredation on sperm whale dietary preference, and show insights into the importance of the GOA as a foraging ground for endangered sperm whales.