Northern Fur Seals (Callorhinus ursinus) of the Commander Islands: Summer Feeding Trips, Winter Migrations and Interactions with Killer Whales (Orcinus orca)



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The northern fur seal (NFS) population on the Pribilof Islands (PI) is currently declining while the population on the Commander Islands (CI which includes Bering and Medny Islands) is stable. The reasons for the different population trajectories remain unknown. Comparing differences in behavioral ecology and predation pressure between these two populations could provide an explanation. This study examined lactating NFS female behavior to determine: 1) summer foraging patterns (trip duration, trip direction, dive depth) of animals from two nearby rookeries on Bering Island, 2) winter migration from Medny and Bering Islands relative to patterns of ocean productivity, and 3) the potential impact of killer whale predation on population dynamics. Data were collected from 2003 to 2010 using visual observations and telemetry. Twenty-one satellite transmitters, 29 time-depth recorders and 17 geolocation recorders were deployed. Shore-based observations of killer whale predation and photo-identification were conducted near the CI rookeries in 19992010. During lactation, both mean foraging trip duration and mean maximum diving depth (3.4 plus/minus 1.3 days and 17.7 plus/minus 6.8 m, respectively) for NFS adult females (n = 28) did not significantly change among years. Although foraging areas of NFS from the two rookeries on Bering Island overlapped, the mean direction of travel from Severo-Zapadnoe rookery was significantly (p<0.01) different compared with Severnoe rookery. The foraging patterns suggested that these females had a reliable food source that did not change despite potential environmental changes or the effects of fisheries. During their winter migration, NFS females from the CI traveled to the Transition Zone Chlorophyll Front (32? N-42? N) in the North Pacific Ocean. Their winter migration routes and the location of overwinter foraging areas were positively correlated with high ocean productivity (near surface chlorophyll a concentration). Over 82 percent (n=17) of these females spent 38 months near the eastern coast of Hokkaido, Japan and followed the coastal high productivity areas on their way back to the CI.

Transient killer whales in groups of 2-12 individuals were repeatedly observed preying mostly on NFS males during the summer. The simulation model showed little impact on population dynamics as long as male fur seals were the primary prey. However, if the number of killer whales increased or they changed their diet to include females and pups, then the NFS population on the CI could decline.

The winter migration of NFS from CI and PI are similar. Lactating NFS from the PI exhibit greater summer foraging effort (longer average trip duration and bout duration; greater number of deep dives) compared with females from the CI.