Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VIII No. 2 April 1999


Large Whales and Small Numbers

by William Rossiter, CSI President


The last right whale to roam the North Atlantic may be the grandchild of one of the two calves born this year. According to a paper by Caswell, Fujiwara and Brault just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "under current conditions the population is doomed to extinction; an upper bound on the expected time to extinction is 191 years. The most effective way to improve the prospects of the population is to reduce mortality. The right whale is at risk from entanglement in fishing gear and from collisions with ships. Reducing this human-caused mortality is essential to the viability of this population." If that last whale lives out its 100 lonely years, born to a 46 year old mother, in turn born to a 1999 calf at 45 years of age, we are looking at three generations of existence. No one knows how long the species lives but one relative, the bowhead whale, certainly does make 100, and one was judged to be a healthy 210 years when it was killed in Alaska for meat, a sad fate for the oldest known mammal. The numbing estimates of extinctions made public each day, and our obsession with short term views, tend to obscure the significance of something "so far in the future". Three generations to extinction is a louder alarm bell for those who think 191 years is not such a long way away. The point is that we can change that numbing statistic. There is a growing political, regulatory and public mood to help this whale.

In February the National Marine Fisheries Service implemented the Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, to help right, humpback, fin, and minke whales. These regulations close whale habitat to some types of fishing gear when whales are present, prohibit certain fishing practices that increase the risk of whale entanglement, fund gear research to develop fishing gear less likely to entangle whales, conduct outreach to inform fishermen of entanglement problems, and operate a Whale Disentanglement Network, led by the Center for Coastal Studies, to locate and disentangle whales caught in fishing gear. Each right whale is especially precious to the increasing number of people trying to help. Major regulatory changes, heroic disentanglements, political support and widespread publicity are only the beginning. One example is Canada's willingness to review flexible changes to shipping lanes that currently put 75% of the right whale population summering in the Bay of Fundy in conflict with ships up to 1300 feet long moving at 25 knots (see the January 1999 Whales Alive! about why the whales may not hear the ships coming).

The North Atlantic right whale population hovers near 300 individuals, with a population growth below 2%, versus 7% for a healthy population, slipping away each year. Increased calving intervals and decreased calving rate mean that 52 of 75 known mothers are overdue. Only two calves have been seen so far, the lowest in many years (the best year had 22). Changes in habitat use and distribution patterns are dramatic. Many show boat and propeller impacts, but at least they survived. There are about 350 photo-identified whales but not all are alive (if not seen in six years they are presumed dead). 270 have been sampled for DNA.

These and other statistics demonstrate the priority now given to right whale research, but these data must translate to effective management responses. For example, if the evidence continues to mount that the North Atlantic population is constrained by a limited food supply, and human impacts such as Boston's outfall pipe change the critical habitat of Cape Cod Bay, will we allow the changes to continue or fight for the whale? How many tiny plankton does a 50 ton right whale need to eat each day to survive, much less grow and reproduce? Millions. If the energy required to migrate to and hunt the plankton prey demands patches of millions of plankton dense enough to meet the whale's caloric requirements, but these patches are rare, scattered, and vulnerable to environmental conditions we create, how does the whale find enough of them? And if last year's feeding area collapses where does the whale go to find more? 67% of the known mothers show site fidelity by returning to the Bay of Fundy with some or all of their calves. If, after a winter's fast, mothers and nursing calves return each year to the same area but conditions are worse what do they do? If they chose to sleep in shipping lanes, as right whale "No. 1612" has done (see http://www.rightwhale.noaa.gov for her satellite tag track), what can we do? Can more shipping channels become flexible to meet the reality that this species just doesn't hear or understand what an oncoming boat can do? They cannot seem to adapt fast enough. We must adapt instead.

Increased research has found intriguing and even hopeful mysteries. If DNA analysis has identified 60% of the fathers, where are the unknown males that haven't been sampled? Will other calves show up on the summer grounds, suggesting an offshore calving area? Where do many whales go for the years they are not observed in the research areas? Does this mean that they have found a good food source and safe haven far enough from our competition? Does it mean there are a few more right whales out there to help the population make it beyond three generations? Perhaps they are doing their very best to adapt. So should we.

The much more robust right whale population in the southern hemisphere needs help too. CSI's Brazilian representative, José Truda Palazzo, reports that this March his Brazilian Right Whale Project proposed the establishment of the Right Whale National Environmental Protection Area, "APA DA BALEIA FRANCA". This new sanctuary in coastal waters off Santa Catarina State in Southern Brazil is to protect the main calving ground for surviving Southern Right Whales in Brazilian waters, which were hunted until 1973.

Better survey, sampling and statistical techniques have improved the accuracy of estimates of many whale populations. In March, U.S. and Mexican scientists released new estimates that the North Pacific gray whale population was about 26,600 animals, a substantial increase from the 22,200 animals estimated in 1995-96 surveys. Some suspect that this figure was revised to support the U.S. political effort to justify the Makah whaling. The alarming record number of dead grays on Mexico beaches (52 at press time), the Mitsubishi and Exportadora de Sal (ESSA) salt scandal in the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve (a U.N. World Heritage Site and the location of 18 dead whales), and the significant migratory changes noted last fall should stop anyone arguing that more gray whales means less concern. The gray whales found dead near Mexico's Baja California Peninsula are at an all time high for a migratory season, according to the Group of 100. Some deaths were attributed to cyanide poisoning, and the five NGOs that have filed a criminal complaint with Mexico's Attorney General suspect environmental contamination. Hundreds of sea lions and other marine animals have also died. Greenpeace, NRDC and at least 50 Mexican environmental groups also filed a criminal complaint in March against ESSA for the deaths of 94 sea turtles in the sensitive wildlife reserve.

A better example of better estimates is the most comprehensive and coordinated study of a large whale population ever conducted, the Years of the North Atlantic Humpback (YoNAH) Project. YoNAH began in 1992 with scientists from seven countries participating, collecting so much data that major conclusions were only recently published. All we have room for here is the new estimated population of 10,600 humpback whales. With this increase in estimates came immediate suggestions to delist the humpback from the Endangered Species Act's protection (see related article). CSI does not support any effort to delist the humpback. The endangered status has been significant for a multitude of conservation measures. But perhaps our primary concern, from a broader perspective, should be for the resumption of legal whaling of humpbacks.

12,000 humpbacks are estimated to live in the Southern hemisphere. Better research may show more. Numbers mean many things, including how many whales may be killed. The humpback is protected, but its Vulnerable designation is scheduled for review by the IWC by 2001. There are known Japanese pressures to take this and many other species. Earthtrust's forensic DNA program results published in NATURE on 27 January 1999 documented the life and death of another protected whale, from his 1965 birth in the North Atlantic to a blue whale mother and a fin whale father, to a package of meat sold in an Osaka department store in 1993. This whale's story provides a valuable perspective on the realities of whaling. Blue whale populations have been so decimated by whaling that they have trouble finding other blues for mating, contributing to a downward slide in populations even without whaling. He was "protected" in 1986 with the IWC whaling moratorium. Iceland issued itself a whaling permit for "research" and harpooned him in 1989. At death, he was 21.5 meters long and 24 years old. Worth a lot of money in Japan's market, his meat was presumably shipped to Japan in 1990 as part of 1,074 tons of whale meat shipped by Iceland that year. CITES prohibits such trade, but Japan had filed an "exception" to this rule. Thus two international treaties protecting this whale were circumvented by Iceland and Japan. For more information on this and the trade in dolphin meat see: http://earthtrust.org.

The budget of the Japanese National Space Development Agency includes US$400,000 for a satellite to track whales, and coupled with announced plans to attach satellite tags to species they do not presently hunt, unrestricted whaling and trade of anything and everything is their obvious goal. The Japanese view the open ocean as their resource, with countless examples of exploitation similar to the "slash and burn" techniques that have wiped out so much rain forest. Take until there is no more and move on. What if other nations acted this way? That they do not may even reinforce Japan's attitude of superiority.

What if there seem to be enough numbers to start legal commercial whaling again? Spokesmen for the Makah Indians have asserted their right to use whale products for commercial purposes. Meat from protected species is available in Japanese supermarkets, and there are companies and officials in Argentina and Brazil rumored to have an interest in the potentially lucrative business. Perhaps future whaling pressures are one reason for the Brazilian proposal to be made to the 51st IWC Meeting for the establishment of the "South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary" (SAWS). This Sanctuary would be from the Equator to the previously established Southern Ocean Sanctuary around Antarctica, and from 70ºW and east of the coast of South America to 20ºE and west of the coast of Africa. At least nine species of whales have been commercially hunted in this area, which encompasses all known breeding grounds and potential migratory routes of large whales in the South Atlantic. Please see the IWC article in this Whales Alive! for comments about how SAWS and the South Pacific Whale Sanctuary might be handled at the IWC.

In the spirit of better research, the Brazilian government has sponsored many scientists on cetacean surveys around the northeast coast some months ago, and on the recently ended survey cruise off Antarctica. Eleven young Brazilian scientists, rotating in small teams, participated in the 1998/99 oceanographic trip. CSI is immensely pleased that at least six of them have been recipients of CSI grants and assistance; our investment has paid off very well. What follows is a report by Eduardo Secchi, Project Leader, to share some of the value and excitement of their research. The exact numbers of identified whales, samples, and other data will be available soon.


Go to next article: The Brazilian Antarctic Whales Project or: Table of Contents.

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