Dynamics of killer whale, bluefin tuna and human fisheries in the Strait of Gibraltar

Esteban R, Verborgh P, Gauffier P, et al (2016) Dynamics of killer whale, bluefin tuna and human fisheries in the Strait of Gibraltar. Biological Conservation 194:31–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2015.11.031

A complex balance has arisen between the bluefin tuna, killer whales, and human activities in the Strait of Gibraltar. Recent changes in fishing effort have dramatically decreased tuna stocks, breaking this balance. Killer whales exhibit two strategies for feeding on tuna: active hunting and depredation on a drop-line fishery. From 1999 to 2011, a small community of 39 individuals was observed in the Strait in spring and summer. All individuals displayed active hunting and 18 of them also depredated on the fishery. These differences in foraging behaviour influenced life-history parameters. Adult survival for interacting and non-interacting individuals was estimated at 0.991 (SE=0.011) and 0.901 (SE=0.050), respectively. Juvenile survival could only be estimated for interacting individuals as 0.966 (SE=0.024), because only one juvenile and one calf were observed among non-interacting individuals. None of the interacting calves survived after 2005, following the decrease in drop-line fishery catches. Calving rate was estimated at 0.22 (SE=0. 02) for interacting individuals and 0.02 (SE=0. 01) for non-interacting. Calving interval, which could only be calculated for interacting groups, was 7years. The population growth rate was positive at 4% for interacting individuals, and no growth was observed for non-interacting individuals. These differences in demographic parameters could be explained by access to larger tuna through depredation. Consequently, we found that whales would need more tuna to cover their daily energy requirements while actively hunting. Therefore, our findings suggest an effect of artificial food provisioning on their survival and reproductive output. Urgent actions are needed to ensure the conservation of this, already small, community of killer whales. These include its declaration as Endangered, the implementation of a conservation plan, the creation of a seasonal management area where activities producing underwater noise (i.e. military exercise, seismic surveys or even whale watching activities) are forbidden from March to August, and the promotion of bluefin tuna conservation. Additionally, energetic requirements of this whale community should be taken into account when undertaking ecosystem-based fishery management for the Atlantic bluefin tuna stock. In the meantime, as marine predators are most sensitive to changes in fish abundance when prey abundance is low, we suggest an urgent short-term action. Artisanal fisheries, such as drop-lines, should be promoted instead of purse seiners in the Mediterranean Sea. This will help to maintain the survival and reproductive output of the whale community until showing clear signs of recovery and stability, and/or their prey stock recovers.