Albany Canyon Region IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

90,657 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Sperm whale – Physeter macrocephalus 

Criterion A; B (2); C (2)

Killer whale – Orcinus orca 

Criterion B (2); C (2)

Marine Mammal Diversity 

Delphinus delphis, Stenella coeruleoalba, Balaenoptera musculus intermedia, Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda, Balaenoptera physalus, Megaptera novaeangliae, Eubalaena australis, Mesoplodon layardii, Pseudorca crassidens, Globicephala melas

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The Albany Canyon Region IMMA encompasses an extensive network of steep, shelf-incising, and highly productive submarine canyons off the continental shelf of Southwest Australia.  It includes the Albany Canyon group, adjacent shelf break, and the Bremer Sub-basin.  The submarine canyons, which are 40-90 kilometers south of the southwest Australian coastline, have been identified as a key ecological feature as they are linked to localized, periodic upwellings that enhance productivity and attract aggregations of marine life including cetaceans.  The area is recognised as a biologically important and productive marine ecosystem, hosting a large number of marine megafaunal species (e.g. seabirds, pelagic sharks and fishes, cetaceans, pinnipeds and reptiles.  The IMMA supports a diversity of vulnerable, near threatened, and data deficient cetaceans.  Some species are seasonally resident, while others are transient or migratory. Of particular significance are the year-round sperm whale and killer whale aggregations.

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion A: Species or Population Vulnerability

Data from historical and commercial whaling catches, aerial surveys,  modern passive acoustic studies and research voyages have identified submarine canyons in the Southwest Australia region as important habitat for sperm whales and other cetaceans (Bannister, 1964, 1968; Bouchet, Meeuwig, et al., 2018; Carrol et al. 2014; Johnson et al., 2016; Salgado Kent et al., 2020). The sperm whale is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List and by the State Government of Western Australia (Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016).  Sperm whales inhabit and forage in deep offshore areas and were hunted extensively across all oceans for two centuries.

Criterion B: Distribution and Abundance

Sub-criterion B2: Aggregations 

Killer whales have been reported to concentrate in the Bremer Sub-basin over the austral summer and autumn months, forming what is believed to be the largest known aggregation of the species in Australian waters with >140 individuals photo-identified as of 2019 (Bouchet, Wellard, Erbe, & Meeuwig, 2018; Wellard & Erbe, 2017).   Satellite tracks of tagged individual killer whales show movement all along the canyon shelf from Hood Canyon, offshore Bremer Bay, Western Australia to Albany Canyon, offshore Albany, Western Australia.

From 1936 to 1978, 16,080 sperm whales were killed offshore in the southwest, of Australia primarily from the Cheynes Beach whaling station in Albany (IWC). The International Whaling Commission commercial whaling records indicate that sperm whales used the Albany canyons year-round (Johnson et al, 2016). Visual observations conducted on recent research voyages revealed that sperm whales are utilising the region offshore from Albany through to Bremer Bay (Bouchet, Meeuwig, et al., 2018;  Salgado Kent et al., 2020).

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C2: Feeding Areas

Typical sperm whale foraging habitat is in water over 400 m deep along continental slopes and ridges including areas of high bottom relief (Jaquet and Whitehead, 1996; Hooker et al., 1999; Pirotta et al., 2011), coastal upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters (Rendell et al., 2004), thermal fronts (Griffin, 1999) and areas of high primary productivity (Jaquet and Whitehead, 1996).  Sperm whales are highly acoustic animals that echolocate almost continuously by emitting powerful, regular, highly directional clicks of frequencies of 8–26 kHz to navigate and find prey (Jaquet et al., 2001; Madsen et al., 2002; Wahlberg, 2002; Møhl et al., 2003). On average, they spend more than 72% of their time in foraging dive cycles with durations that can last up to an hour to depths averaging 400–1200 m and up to 2000 m (Watwood et al., 2006).  The Odyssey expedition recorded feeding dives in the region using a hydrophone array while searching for and tracking sperm whales to obtain tissue biopsies (Johnson et al., 2016). A study modelling historical and modern data on sperm whale visual and acoustic ‘presence’ found that the southwest canyons of the continental shelf from Leeuwin Western Australia, east to Esperance, Western Australia are important foraging habitat for sperm whales (Johnson et al., 2016).  The Australian government has identified this region to be a biologically important area for sperm whale foraging (Department of Environment, 2012b).

Dedicated research on killer whales in the region has shown that the Bremer Sub-Basin is important offshore habitat, with photo-identified individuals recaptured over multiple seasons and engaged in feeding behaviour not previously documented (Salgado Kent et al., 2020; Bouchet et al, 2018; Wellard & Erbe, 2017; Wellard et al., 2016).

Supporting Information

Bannister, J. L. 1964. Australian whaling 1963, catch results and research. CSIRO Division of Fisheries and Oceanography Reports, 38, 1-13.

Bannister, J. L. 1968. An aerial survey for sperm whales off the coast of Western Australia 1963-1965. Marine and Freshwater Research, 19(1), 31-52.

Bouchet, P., Wellard, R., Erbe, C., & Meeuwig, J. 2018. Aerial survey of cetaceans and other megafauna in the Bremer Marine Park and surrounding areas. Report NESP Short Communication.

Carroll, G., Hedley, S., Bannister, J., Ensor, P., & Harcourt, R. 2014. No evidence for recovery in the population of sperm whale bulls off Western Australia, 30 years post-whaling. Endangered Species Research, 24(1), 33-43.

Department of Environment and Energy. 2012a. Marine bioregional plan for the Southwest Marine Region prepared under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Canberra, Australia.

Department of Environment and Energy. 2012b. Species group report card – Cetaceans. Supporting the marine bioregional plan for the South-west Marine Region. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. Canberra, Australia.

Department of the Environment and Energy. 2020. Conservation Values Atlas, Sperm Whales. Australia.

Director of National Parks. 2018. South-west Marine Parks Network Management Plan 2018. Director of National Parks, Canberra. Australia.

Evans, E. 2017. Killer whale (Orcinus orca) abundance in the Bremer Sub-Basin, Western Australia: A photo-identification study (Honours), Curtin University, Western Australia.

Exon, N., Hill, P., Mitchell, C., & Post, A. 2005. Nature and origin of the submarine Albany canyons off southwest Australia. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, 52(1), 101-115.

Foote, A. D., Martin, M. D., Louis, M., Pacheco, G., Robertson, K. M., Sinding, M. H. S., . . . Ballance, L. 2019. Killer whale genomes reveal a complex history of recurrent admixture and vicariance. Molecular Ecology.

Gavrilov, A., & Erbe, C. 2017. Assessment of marine megafauna found at the edge of the continental shelf off Bremer Bay using passive acoustic observations. Report CMST 2017-3.

Griffin, R. B. 1999. Sperm whale distributions and community ecology associated with a warm-core ring off georges bank. Mar. Mamm. Sci. 15, 33–51.

Hooker, S. K., Whitehead, H., and Gowans, S. 1999. Marine protected area design and the spatial and temporal distribution of Cetaceans in a Submarine Canyon. Conserv. Biol. 13, 592–602. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1999.98099.x

Jaquet, N., and Whitehead, H. 1996. Scale-dependent correlation of sperm whale distribution with environmental features and productivity in the South Pacific. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. Oldend. 135, 1–9.

Jaquet, N., Whitehead, H., and Lewis, M. 1996. Coherence between 19th century sperm whale distributions and satellite-derived pigments in the tropical Pacific. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 145, 1–10.

Jaquet, N., and Whitehead, H. 1996. Scale-dependent correlation of sperm whale distribution with environmental features and productivity in the South Pacific. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. Oldend. 135, 1–9.

Jaquet, N., Dawson, S., and Douglas, L. 2001. Vocal behavior of male sperm whales: why do they click? J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 109, 2254–2259. doi: 10.1121/1.1360718

Johnson, C. M., Beckley, L. E., Kobryn, H., Johnson, G. E., Kerr, I., & Payne, R. 2016. Crowdsourcing modern and historical data identifies sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) habitat offshore of south-western Australia. Frontiers in Marine Science, 3, 167.

Jones, A., Bruce, E., P. Davies, K., Blewitt, M., & Sheehan, S. 2019. Assessing potential environmental influences on killer whale (Orcinus orca) distribution patterns in the Bremer Canyon, south-west Australia. Australian Geographer 50(3), p:381-405.

Kemper, C., Coughran, D., Warneke, R., Pirzl, R., Watson, M., Gales, R., & Gibbs, S. 2008. Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) mortalities and human interactions in Australia, 1950-2006. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, 10(1), 1-8.

Madsen, P. T., Payne, R., Kristiansen, N. U., Wahlberg, M., Kerr, I., and Møhl, B. 2002. Sperm whale sound production studied with ultrasound time/depth-recording tags. J. Exp. Biol. 205, 1899–1906.

Møhl, B., Wahlberg, M., Madsen, P. T., Heerfordt, A., and Lund, A. 2003. The monopulsed nature of sperm whale clicks. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 114, 1143–1154. doi: 10.1121/1.1586258

Pattiaratchi, C. 2007. Understanding areas of high productivity within the South-west Marine Region. Report for the National Oceans Office, 53pp.

Pirotta, E., Matthiopoulos, J., MacKenzie, M., Scott-Hayward, L., and Rendell, L. 2011. Modelling sperm whale habitat preference: a novel approach combining transect and follow data. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 436, 257–272. doi: 10.3354/meps09236

Pitman, R. L., Totterdell, J. A., Wellard, R., Cullen, P., & de Boer, M. 2019. Long in the tooth: Biological observations from at sea sightings of strap toothed beaked whales (Mesoplodon layardii). Marine Mammal Science.

Rendell, L., Whitehead, H., and Escribano, R. 2004. Sperm whale habitat use and foraging success off northern Chile: evidence of ecological links between coastal and pelagic systems. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 275, 289–295. doi: 10.3354/meps275289

Reeves, I. M., Totterdell, J., Barcelo, A., Pitman, R. L., Sandoval-Castillo, J., Attard, C., . . . Moller, L. 2019. Population genomics of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in Australia and New Zealand. Paper presented at the World Marine Mammal Conference, Barcelona, Spain.

Salgado Kent, C., Bouchet, P., Wellard, R., Parnum, I., Fouda, L., & Erbe, C. 2020. Cetacean hotspots at steep canyon edges of the Bremer Sub-Basin, south-western Australia: First insights from multiple platforms. Australian Mammalogy.

Savery, L. C., Evers, D. C., Wise, S. S., Falank, C., Wise, J., Gianios, C., et al. 2013a. Global mercury and selenium concentrations in skin from free-ranging sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Sci. Total Environ. 450–451, 59–71. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2013.01.070

Savery, L. C., Wise, S. S., Falank, C., Wise, J., Gianios, C. Jr., Thompson, W. D., et al. 2013b. Global assessment of silver pollution using sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) as an indicator species. J. Env. Anal. Toxicol. 3, 525–2161. doi: 10.4172/2161-0525.1000169

Savery, L. C., Wise, J. T. F., Wise, S. S., Falank, C. Jr., C. G Thompson, W. D., Perkins, C., et al. 2014. Global assessment of arsenic pollution using sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) as an emerging aquatic model organism. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. C Pharmacol. Toxicol. Endocrinol. 163, 55–63. doi: 10.1016/j.cbpc.2014.01.003

Townsend, C. H. 1935. The distribution of certain whales as shown by logbook records of American whaleships. Zoologica 19, 1–50.

Wahlberg, M. 2002. The acoustic behaviour of diving sperm whales observed with a hydrophone array. J. Exp. Mar. Bio. Ecol. 281, 53–62. doi: 10.1016/S0022-0981(02)00411-2

Ward, R., Gavrilov, A. N., & McCauley, R. D. 2017. Spot call: A common sound from an unidentified great whale in Australian temperate waters. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 142(2), EL231-EL236.

Watwood, S. L., Miller, P. J. O., Johnson, M., Madsen, P. T., and Tyack, P. L. 2006. Deep-diving foraging behaviour of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). J. Anim. Ecol. 75, 814–825. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2006.01101.x

Wellard, R., & Erbe, C. 2017. Killer Whales of the Bremer Sub-Basin : A photo-ID catalogue. Centre for Marine Science and Technology, Curtin University.

Wellard, R., Erbe, C., Fouda, L., & Blewitt, M. 2015. Vocalisations of Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in the Bremer Canyon, Western Australia. PloS One, 10(9).

Wellard, R., Lightbody, K., Fouda, L., Blewitt, M., Riggs, D., & Erbe, C. 2016. Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Predation on Beaked Whales (Mesoplodon spp.) in the Bremer Sub-Basin, Western Australia. PloS One, 11(12).

Whitehead, H., and Weilgart, L. 2000. “The sperm whale: social females and roving males,” in Cetacean Societies: Field Studies of Dolphins and Whale, eds J. Mann, R. C. Connor, P. L. Tyack, and H. Whitehead (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press), 154–172.

Whitehead, H. 2002. Estimates of the current global population size and historical trajectory for sperm whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 242, 295–304. doi: 10.3354/meps242295

Wise, J. P., Payne, R., Wise, S. S., LaCerte, C., Wise, J., Gianios, C., et al. 2009. A global assessment of chromium pollution using sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) as an indicator species. Chemosphere 75, 1461–1467. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2009.02.044

Woinarski, J. C., Burbidge, A. A., & Harrison, P. L. 2014. The action plan for Australian mammals 2012. CSIRO Publishing.


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