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Visual Health Assessment and evaluation of Anthropogenic threats to Arabian Sea Humpback Whales in Oman
G. Minton, M.F. Van Bressem, A. Willson, T. Collins, S. Al Harthi, M. Sarrouf Willson, R. Baldwin, M. Leslie, J. Robbins, K. Van Waerebeek
International Whaling Commission
Arabian Sea humpback whales have been a subject of conservation concern in the IWC since 1997. Research conducted primarily off the coast of Oman has contributed to understanding the population???s distribution, abundance, and conservation status, whilst information on the population???s health and specific threats is more limited. This study examines all available images of Arabian Sea humpback whales obtained between 2000 and 2018 for evidence of disease, predation, epizoites and human-induced scarring or injury to individuals. Tattoo-like skin disease was detected in 43.4% of 83 adult whales, with a roughly equal distribution between males and females. The prevalence of the disease was significantly higher in 2012-2018 (51.7%) than in 2000-2011 (24.1%). The lesions persisted for two to 14 years in 10 whales and progressed in prevalence and percentage of body cover in six of them. Killer whale tooth rakes were detected in 12% (95% CI 4.5-18%) of individuals based on examination of photographs showing the ventral surface of tail flukes (n=77), but no cookie cutter shark wounds were detected on any body parts of any of the whales examined. Roughly two thirds (66.6%: 95% CI 52-80%) of individuals represented by good quality photos of the caudal peduncle region (n=42) bore scarring patterns considered likely to be associated with entanglement in fishing gear, with no significant differences in entanglement scarring rates between males and females. Four individuals bore injuries consistent with vessel strikes and at least two individuals showed severe injuries and deformations likely to have been caused by interactions with vessels and/or fishing gear. Five documented entanglement events from Oman and Pakistan involved large-mesh nylon gillnets, which are known to be used extensively throughout the Arabian Sea. In light of this population???s endangered status, these findings indicate an urgent need to continue monitoring Arabian Sea humpback whales, with an emphasis on methods that allow continued and expanded assessment of health, body condition, and anthropogenic interactions, aimed toward designing effective conservation strategies to mitigate known threats.