THEGREENGROK    Planetary Watch

Planetary Watch: The Future of Whales

by Bill Chameides | June 16th, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Many whale population are dwindling. International agreements on research must be updated to conserve these awesome marine critters.

In Vancouver last week for a friend’s wedding, I encountered an extraordinary, even wondrous event — a baby beluga whale entering the world. OK, technically I missed the actual birth by 2 ½ days, but I caught it on video (you can see it on youtube). What I did get to witness in person was still a sight to behold — mother Qila swimming and playing with her not-quite-three-day-old calf. (Here are some of my pictures. Here’s more on beluga whales.)

The timing couldn’t have been more poignant.

The same week as my up-close-and-personal whale watching at the Vancouver Aquarium, my colleague Dr. Andrew Read, professor of marine conservation biology at Duke, gave some impassioned, eloquent testimony [PDF] about the future of whales to a Congressional subcommittee. Andy, an authority on marine mammals and conservation, is a member of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a group formed in 1946 “to provide proper conservation of whale stocks.” He and the commission have their work cut out for them.

Almost All Whale Populations Are Depleted

Andy explained in no uncertain terms that whale populations are at dangerously low levels. He warned that certain permitting practices allowing the slaughter of whales under the guise of scientific research must be stopped. His arguments reveal a dichotomy in different worldviews of the relationship between whales and humans, the number one reason for the decline of the leviathans. But if anyone doubts the role we humans play when it comes to whale populations, a quick look at the numbers dismisses any doubt.

In the 20th century alone, more than two million whales were killed in the southern hemisphere. Unhindered hunting decimated many whale species, leaving small populations in some areas while completely wiping them out in others. The Southern Ocean blue whale, the largest animal on earth, went from a population 200,000 strong to less than 2,000 today.

Some whale populations like the one I saw at the Vancouver Aquarium are suffering. The Cook Inlet beluga, for instance, has plummeted from historical estimates of about 1,300 to 300 today. In April 2007 the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed to list it as endangered.

Since whaling was banned in 1986, some — but not all — populations have started to come back. On the U.S. West Coast, for example, the eastern Pacific population of gray whales has recovered enough to be removed from the U.S. Endangered and Threatened Species list in 1994. Unfortunately, the western Pacific population has not, and it remains critically endangered.

The bottom line of Andy’s testimony was clear. We must continue conservation efforts to ensure that these beautiful creatures of the sea remain a vital part of our marine ecosystem.

International Agreements Must Be Strengthened

One major threat to the whales’ recovery comes from an exploited loophole permitting harvesting through what’s euphemistically called “scientific whaling.” Since 1987, for example, Japan has killed almost 10,000 whales in the North Pacific and Antarctic under its Special Permit program. The governments of Norway and Iceland have engaged in smaller “research programs” in the North Atlantic.

The provision that allows for this so-called scientific harvesting was created more than 60 years ago, well before our modern non-lethal research techniques were developed. Today we can use a small bit of whale tissue to give us all the answers we need in three main areas of research: stock structure, abundance, and past catches. We must update our agreements to allow research to continue but without the unnecessary slaughter of the creatures the research is aimed at understanding.

The IWC is expected to debate whether or not they should end issuing these special permits at its upcoming annual meeting later this month in Santiago, Chile. Andy expects a hard-fought, bitter battle with the very integrity of the IWC — and the future of whales — hanging in the balance.

filed under: animals, faculty, oceans, Planetary Watch
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1 Comment

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  1. lisajw
    Jun 19, 2008

    New England Aquarium has just named Irving Oil Founding Research Partner in an effort to protect the world’s “most endangered large whale.” Other oil companies could and should be encouraged to take their cue from Irving. Such companies have the power, the resources, the access to lawmakers and shipping lanes, and perhaps an interest in the goodwill associated with environmental stewardship to help offset negative impacts associated with their day job.” title=”Future of Whales

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