Investigation of foraging habits and prey selection by humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) using acoustic tags and concurrent fish surveys


Current address: NOAA Fisheries, Kodiak Laboratory, Kodiak Fisheries Research Center, 301 Research Court, Kodiak, Alaska 99615, U.S.A.


Tags containing acoustic time-depth transmitters (ATDT) were attached to four humpback whales near Kodiak, Alaska. Tags allowed for whale dive depths to be recorded in real time. Acoustic and mid-water trawl surveys were conducted concurrent with tagging efforts within the study area to quantify available fish resources and describe potential prey selection by humpback whales. Recorded dives were grouped through visual assessment and t-tests. Dives that indicated likely foraging occurred at a mean maximum depth of 106.2 m with 62% of dives occurring between 92 m and 120 m. Acoustic backscatter from fish surveys was attributed to potential humpback prey based on known target strength values and 10 net tows. Capelin comprised 84% of the total potential prey abundance in the region followed by age 0 (12%) and juvenile pollock (2%), and eulachon (<1%). Although horizontally segregated in the region, both capelin and age 0 pollock were distributed at depths exceeding 92 m with maximum abundance between 107 m and 120 m. The four-tagged humpbacks were found to forage in areas with greatest capelin densities but bypassed areas of high age 0 pollock abundance. The location and diving behavior of tagged whales suggested that whales were favoring capelin over pollock as a prey source.