Contrasting abundance and residency patterns of two sympatric populations of transient killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the northern Gulf of Alaska


Matkin, Craig O., John W. Durban, Eva L. Saulitis, Russel D. Andrews, Janice M. Straley, Dena R. Matkin, and Graeme M. Ellis
Cover date: 

Two sympatric populations of “transient” (mammal-eating) killer whales were photo-identified over 27 years (1984–2010) in Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords, coastal waters of the northern Gulf of Alaska (GOA). A total of 88 individuals were identified during 203 encounters with “AT1” transients (22 individuals) and 91 encounters with “GOA” transients (66 individuals). The median number of individuals identified annually was similar for both populations (AT1=7; GOA=8), but mark-recapture estimates showed the AT1 whales to have much higher fidelity to the study area, whereas the GOA whales had a higher exchange of individuals. Apparent survival estimates were generally high for both populations, but there was a significant reduction in the survival of AT1 transients after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, with an abrupt decline in estimated abundance from a high of 22 in 1989 to a low of seven whales at the end of 2010. There was no detectable decline in GOA population abundance or survival over the same period, but abundance ranged from just 6 to 18 whales annually. Resighting data from adjacent coastal waters and movement tracks from satellite tags further indicated that the GOA whales are part of a larger population with a more extensive range, whereas AT1 whales are resident to the study area.