Scientists seek whales sightings

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska mariners are being asked to keep track of cruising killer whales this week to find out how many swim near the state in the winter.

If enough people scan fjords and icy bays, the count will produce an unprecedented large-scale ''snapshot'' of cold-season killer whale distribution.

People should report in even if they do not see whales, said Andrew Trites, count coordinator and executive director of the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium in Vancouver, British Columbia.

''We suspect that there are places where the whales are concentrated, and if those are identified, we can send out the experts,'' Trites said. ''We're hoping to get a head start by having local people on the water and keeping an eye out for us.''

The count started Saturday and runs though Friday. It's modeled on the Christmas Bird census sponsored for decades by the Audubon Society.

Anyone who ventures within sight of Alaska's seas can participate, including mariners, fishermen, ferry passengers, barge crews, tugboat captains, pilots, beachcombers. Forms have been distributed to Alaska harbor masters and can be found on line.

''We want anyone, from one day to all seven days,'' Trites said. ''If they're going to be out on the water, we'd like to know where they went and if they saw any killer whales.''

Biologist Craig Matkin said a hydrophone in Resurrection Bay has been collecting killer whale calls this winter -- mostly chatter by fish-eating whales, Matkin said. ''So we know there's a lot of activity in Resurrection Bay.''

During a three-day count last summer, 160 people filed reports, including 40 sightings of whales, almost half in Southeast.

Biologists have been working for nearly two decades to identify individual whales and understand their family relationships and eating habits. A handful of researchers work at any given time, almost always in spring, summer and fall.

''Most biologists are fair-weather biologists,'' Trites said. ''They love to go out in the summer. We want to find out about where the whales are in winter.''

Trites, a longtime marine mammal specialist at the University of British Columbia, has been a leading investigator into the Steller sea lion decline off Alaska. He was a key scientist looking into the hypothesis that pollock amounts to junk food for sea lions when compared to forage fish.

Another hypothesis for the decline is that a few killer whales might be eating enough sea lions to keep them from recovering. Getting a good minimum count of the animals in Alaska will help sort out what's going on, Trites said.


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