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Spatial and temporal analysis of killer whale (Orcinus orca) strandings in the North Pacific Ocean and the benefits of a coordinated stranding response protocol


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Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are widely distributed throughout the world's oceans, yet little has been documented about their stranding patterns. Knowledge of stranding patterns improves our ability to examine and sample carcasses and provides a foundation for understanding killer whale natural history, diet, reproduction, anthropogenic stressors, emerging diseases, and patterns of unusual mortality. We compiled published and unpublished killer whale stranding data to describe stranding patterns in the North Pacific Ocean. Between 1925 and 2011, 371 stranded killer whales were reported in Japan (20.4%), Russia (3.5%), Alaska (32.0%), British Columbia (27.4%), Washington (4.0%), Oregon (2.7%), California (5.1%), Mexico (3.8%), and Hawaii (0.8%). Strandings occurred at all times of year, but regionally specific seasonal differences were observed. Mortality and annual census data from Northern and Southern Resident populations were extrapolated to estimate that across the North Pacific, an average of 48 killer whales die annually. However, over the last two decades, an average of only 10 killer whale carcasses were recovered annually in this ocean, making each event a rare opportunity for study. Publication of a standardized killer whale necropsy protocol and dedicated funding facilitated the number of complete postmortem necropsies performed on stranded killer whales from 1.6% to 32.2% annually.