• Variability in foraging by humpback whales (Megaptera novaenangliae) on the Kodiak, AK, feeding ground

      Wright, Dana Louise; Witteveen, Briana; Quinn, Terrance II; Wynne, Kate; Horstmann-Dehn, Lara (2014-12)
      The North Pacific humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) population has been growing rapidly following a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. Knowledge of humpback whale foraging on feeding grounds is becoming increasingly important as the growing population consumes more prey, including economically important commercial fishes. The goal of this thesis is to better understand how marine resources are shared among the growing humpback whale population and sympatric apex predators, including western Steller sea lions (SSLs; Eumetopias jubatus), on the Kodiak, AK, feeding ground. To address this, we explored spatial and temporal (inter-annual and within-feeding season) variability in summer foraging by humpback whales along the eastern side of the Kodiak Archipelago as described by stable carbon (δ¹³C) and nitrogen (δ¹⁵N) isotope ratios of humpback whale skin (n = 118; 2004-2013). We found evidence for the existence of two sub-aggregations of humpback whales ('North', 'South') on the feeding ground that fed at different trophic levels (TLs) throughout the study period. Bayesian stable isotopic mixing models were applied to describe the proportional contribution of prey species to the diet of humpback whales for the two regions. The 'North' region humpback whale sub-aggregation consumed a mixed diet of euphausiids and forage fishes, whereas the 'South' region sub-aggregation foraged predominantly on euphausiids. Results from these analyses were compared to diet composition of Kodiak SSLs of the recovering western SSL population estimated from fecal samples (n = 656; 2000-2005), to explore spatial differences in the degree of overlap in trophic niche between these predators. Western SSLs underwent a marked population decline starting in the late 1970's and have shown slow and variable signs of recovery. Regional variability in SSL and humpback whale diets resulted in a higher degree of overlap in trophic niche, although not biologically significant (Ojk < 0.60), for individuals in the 'North' region compared with the 'South'. However, humpback whale consumption appears to overlap considerably with multiple piscivorous fishes that are prominent prey for SSLs, and thus, consumption by humpback whales may indirectly impact the prey resources of SSLs. Therefore, this study highlights the complexity of the Kodiak ecosystem and suggests consumption by an increasing population of humpback whales has the potential to indirectly impact the recovery of SSLs on a regional scale depending on the biomass of prey species and diet composition of humpback whales in the region.