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Diseases of Aquatic Organisms

    DAO prepress abstract   -  DOI:

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

    Claire Charlton*, Fredrik Christiansen, Rhianne Ward, Alice I. Mackay*, Virginia Andrews-Goff, Alexandre N. Zerbini, Simon Childerhouse, Sacha Guggenheimer, Bridgette O’Shannessy, Robert L. Brownell Jr

    *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 one 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 programs and a collaborative approach for evaluating effects from satellite-tagging cetaceans to support species management.