Using Models of Social Transmission to Examine the Spread of Longline Depredation Behavior among Sperm Whales in the Gulf of Alaska
Fishing, farming and ranching provide opportunities for predators to prey on resources concentrated by humans, a behavior termed depredation. In the Gulf of Alaska, observations of sperm whales depredating on fish caught on demersal longline gear dates back to the 1970s, with reported incidents increasing in the mid-1990s. Sperm whale depredation provides an opportunity to study the spread of a novel foraging behavior within a population. Data were collected during National Marine Fisheries Service longline surveys using demersal longline gear in waters off Alaska from 1998 to 2010. We evaluated whether observations of depredation fit predictions of social transmission by fitting the temporal and spatial spread of new observations of depredation to the Wave of Advance model. We found a significant, positive relationship between time and the distance of new observations from the diffusion center (r2 = 0.55, p-value = 0.003). The data provide circumstantial evidence for social transmission of depredation. We discuss how changes in human activities in the region (fishing methods and regulations) have created a situation in which there is spatial-temporal overlap with foraging sperm whales, likely influencing when and how the behavior spread among the population.