MEPS 310:235-246 (2006)  -  doi:10.3354/meps310235

Have North Pacific killer whales switched prey species in response to depletion of the great whale populations?

Sally A. Mizroch*, Dale W. Rice

National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Mammal Laboratory, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA

ABSTRACT: Springer et al. (2003; Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100:12223–12228) hypothesized that populations of seals, sea lions and sea otters in the northern North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea declined because of increased predation by killer whales, in what they termed a ‘sequential megafaunal collapse’. They hypothesized that the killer whales had been dependent on large whales for food, and that their increased predation on the smaller marine mammals was directly due to the depletion of great whale populations as a result of post-World War II industrial whaling. The maps presented by Springer et al. (2003) masked the development and precipitous decline of post-World War II industrial whaling. Our analysis shows that north of 50°N, whaling developed slowly from 1948 to 1951, expanded steadily from 1952 to 1962, and increased very sharply from 1963 to 1967. By 1968, there was near total drop-off in catches north of 50°N as the whaling fleets moved south. Because of the extraordinary whale biomass removals in the mid-1960s, any whaling-related prey shifting should have started by 1968, not the mid-1970s as they suggested. We also present data that refute their assumption that North Pacific killer whales depended on large whales as prey either prior to or concurrent with the whaling era. During the years of the development and pulse of whaling (i.e. prior to 1968), less than 3% of the mammal-eating killer whales were observed to have large whale remains in their stomachs. Killer whales attack healthy, adult large whales only rarely, and such attacks are usually unsuccessful. Neither minke nor gray whales were depleted by post-World War II industrial whaling, and they have always been available as prey for North Pacific killer whales.

KEY WORDS: Whaling · Killer whale · Sequential decline · Sequential megafaunal collapse

Full text in pdf format
Supplementary appendix