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Historic and current distribution patterns, and minimum abundance of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the north-west Atlantic

  • Jack W. Lawson (a1) and Tara S. Stevens (a1) (a2)
Abstract

This study represents the first comprehensive examination of the distribution and abundance of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the north-west Atlantic. Based on a collation of sightings data and a multi-year photographic catalogue of killer whales, 836 sighting events have been recorded between 1758 and 2012, with most occurring in the last ten years. Killer whales were most commonly observed during June–September in Newfoundland/Labrador, Canada. Most sightings were made close to shore, although many occurred beyond coastal shelf areas and in water depths in excess of 3000 m. Relatively fewer sightings were recorded on the Scotian Shelf, in the Gulf of St Lawrence or the north-eastern USA, despite appreciable aerial and vessel-based cetacean survey effort. In the north-west Atlantic, killer whales have been sighted both alone and in groups, with group sizes ranging from 2 to 30 whales (rarely more than 15, although an aggregation of 100 was reported 43 years ago). Groups usually comprised 2–6 individuals. Based on photographic records, there are at least 67 identified killer whales in the northwest Atlantic; this is an underestimate, since a large portion of our image collection was not of sufficient quality to be considered in the analysis, and many of the whales do not have easily discernible markings. The discovery curve of newly-identified whales has not plateaued, suggesting that there are more whales to identify. These data allow us to better understand the ecology of these killer whales, and provide a baseline against which population changes and distribution patterns can be assessed.

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Corresponding author
Correspondence should be addressed to: J. Lawson, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, North Atlantic Fisheries Centre, 80 East White Hills Road, St John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, CanadaA1C 5X1 email: jack.lawson@dfo-mpo.gc.ca
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Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom
  • ISSN: 0025-3154
  • EISSN: 1469-7769
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-marine-biological-association-of-the-united-kingdom
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