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Diseases of Aquatic Organisms

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DAO 155:125-140 (2023)  -  DOI:

Evaluating short- to medium-term effects of implantable satellite tags on southern right whales Eubalaena australis

Claire Charlton1,2,*, Fredrik Christiansen3, Rhianne Ward1, Alice I. Mackay4, Virginia Andrews-Goff5, Alexandre N. Zerbini6,7,8,9, Simon Childerhouse10, Sacha Guggenheimer2, Bridgette O’Shannessy2, Robert L. Brownell Jr.11

1Centre for Marine Science and Technology, Curtin University, Perth, WA 6102, Australia
2Current Environmental, Perth, WA 6050, Australia
3Department of Ecoscience-Marine Mammal Research, Aarhus University, Roskilde 8000, Denmark
4South Australian Research and Development Institute, West Beach, SA 5024, Australia
5Australian Antarctic Division, Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, Kingston, TAS 7050, Australia
6Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean, and Ecosystem Studies (CICOES), University of Washington & Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA, Seattle, WA 98115, USA
7Marine Ecology and Telemetry Research, Seabeck, WA 98380, USA
8Cascadia Research Collective, Olympia, WA 98501, USA
9Instituto Aqualie, Juiz de Fora, MG 36033-310, Brazil
10Cawthron Institute, Nelson 7010, New Zealand
11NOAA Fisheries, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Monterey, CA 93940, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Improving our understanding of the effects of satellite tags on large whales is a critical step in ongoing tag development to minimise potential health effects whilst addressing important research questions that enhance conservation management policy. In 2014, satellite tags were deployed on 9 female southern right whales Eubalaena australis accompanied by a calf off Australia. Photo-identification resights (n = 48) of 4 photo-identified individuals were recorded 1 to 2894 d (1-8 yr) post-tagging. Short-term (<22 d) effects observed included localised and regional swelling, depression at the tag site, blubber extrusion, skin loss and pigmentation colour change. Broad swelling observable from lateral but not aerial imagery (~1.2 m diameter or ~9% of body length) and depression at the tag site persisted up to 1446 d post-tagging for 1 individual, indicating a persistent foreign-body response or infection. Two tagged individuals returned 4 yr post-tagging in 2018 with a calf, and the medium-term effects were evaluated by comparing body condition of tagged whales with non-tagged whales. These females calved in a typical 4 yr interval, suggesting no apparent immediate impact of tagging on reproduction for these individuals, but longer-term monitoring is needed. There was no observable difference in the body condition between the 2 tagged and non-tagged females. Ongoing monitoring post-tagging is required to build on the sample size and statistical power. We demonstrate the value of long-term monitoring programmes and a collaborative approach for evaluating effects from satellite-tagging cetaceans to support species management.

KEY WORDS: Satellite tracking · Skin condition · Effects · Cetacean · Health · Body condition · Follow-up-study

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Cite this article as: Charlton C, Christiansen F, Ward R, Mackay AI and others (2023) Evaluating short- to medium-term effects of implantable satellite tags on southern right whales Eubalaena australis. Dis Aquat Org 155:125-140.

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