Original Articles

Consideration of multispecies interactions in the Antarctic: a preliminary model of the minke whale – blue whale – krill interaction


Abstract

As a first step in investigating the major predator–prey interactions in the Antarctic, a model describing blue whales Balaenoptera musculus, minke whales Balaenoptera acutorostrata and krill Euphausia superba is developed. Blue and minke whales feed mainly on krill, and they share a similar feeding area near the Antarctic ice edge. In the early 20th century, the large baleen whales in the Antarctic were heavily harvested, some to near extinction. Blue whales were taken for almost 60 years, before being officially protected in 1964. Harvesting of the smaller minke whales commenced only in the 1970s, and the population probably increased during the mid 20th century, likely in response to increased krill abundance following the depletion of the large baleen whales. Recent studies show recoveries of some of these large baleen whale species in response to protection, and also a possible recent decrease in the stock of minke whales as the larger whales recover. This work investigates whether the abundance trends indicated by surveys and other information for these species can be explained by considering only harvesting and the predator–prey interactions between the two whale species and krill. Using historical catch data for blue and minke whales, a simple age-aggregated model including species interactions is fitted to survey abundance estimates. Uncertainties in the abundance estimates and the biological parameters are taken into account in the process by considering plausible ranges for their values. Abundance trends for the species can broadly be replicated by the model, provided the parameter values show certain features, including (i) that blue whales are able to maintain their birth and krill consumption rates until krill abundance drops to relatively low levels, and (ii) that both minke and blue whales show relatively fast rates of growth if krill is abundant, but that minke growth rate falls more rapidly as krill abundance drops. The model suggests two interesting features of the dynamics of these species. First, a substantial decrease in krill biomass from the 1970s to the 1990s as a result of the preceding rapid increase in minke whale abundance, and hence krill consumption, following the depletion of the larger baleen whales. Second, a recovery of blue whales despite the impact of minke whales on krill abundance and its resultant decrease, because blue whales are better able to tolerate decreased krill abundance. Future projections show a gradual increasing trend in blue whale abundance and a gradual decrease in minke abundance, with large amplitude oscillations superimposed. Long-term monitoring of biological parameters and abundance are essential to provide a basis for verification or otherwise of such predictions. Results presented here should be viewed qualitatively rather than quantitatively. However, for the future, refinement of the model structure and incorporation of age structure, data on some other major predator species that feed on krill and some spatial structure, is under consideration.

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