Animal behaviour and marine protected areas: incorporating behavioural data into the selection of marine protected areas for an endangered killer whale population


  • E. Ashe,

    1. School of Biology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland, UK
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    • *Current address: Pearse Island, Box 193, Alert Bay, BC, Canada V0N 1A0.

  • D. P. Noren,

    1. Marine Mammal Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Seattle, WA, USA
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  • R. Williams

    1. Sea Mammal Research Unit, Gatty Marine Laboratory, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland, UK
    2. Marine Mammal Research Unit, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
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Erin Ashe, School of Biology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 8LB, Scotland, UK.


Like many endangered wildlife populations, the viability and conservation status of ‘southern resident’ killer whales Orcinus orca in the north-east Pacific may be affected by prey limitation and repeated disturbance by human activities. Marine protected areas (MPAs) present an attractive option to mitigate impacts of anthropogenic activities, but they run the risk of tokenism if placed arbitrarily. Notwithstanding recreational and industrial marine traffic, the number of commercial vessels in the local whalewatching fleet is approaching the number of killer whales to be watched. Resident killer whales have been shown to be more vulnerable to vessel disturbance while feeding than during resting, travelling or socializing activities, therefore protected-areas management strategies that target feeding ‘hotspots’ should confer greater conservation benefit than those that protect habitat generically. Classification trees and spatially explicit generalized additive models were used to model killer whale habitat use and whale behaviour in inshore waters of Washington State (USA) and British Columbia (BC, Canada). Here we propose a candidate MPA that is small (i.e. a few square miles), but seemingly important. Killer whales were predicted to be 2.7 times as likely to be engaged in feeding activity in this site than they were in adjacent waters. A recurring challenge for cetacean MPAs is the need to identify areas that are large enough to be biologically meaningful while being small enough to allow effective management of human activities within those boundaries. Our approach prioritizes habitat that animals use primarily for the activity in which they are most responsive to anthropogenic disturbance.