Photographic mark-recapture analysis of clustered mammal-eating killer whales around the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska

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We used photographic mark-recapture methods to estimate the number of mammal-eating “transient” killer whales using the coastal waters from the central Gulf of Alaska to the central Aleutian Islands, around breeding rookeries of endangered Steller sea lions. We identified 154 individual killer whales from 6,489 photographs collected between July 2001 and August 2003. A Bayesian mixture model estimated seven distinct clusters (95% probability interval = 7–10) of individuals that were differentially covered by 14 boat-based surveys exhibiting varying degrees of association in space and time. Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods were used to sample identification probabilities across the distribution of clusters to estimate a total of 345 identified and undetected whales (95% probability interval = 255–487). Estimates of covariance between surveys, in terms of their coverage of these clusters, indicated spatial population structure and seasonal movements from these near-shore waters, suggesting spatial and temporal variation in the predation pressure on coastal marine mammals.

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