Jan 13

A proposed quota market could help to reduce the number of marine mammals killed each year, by allowing conservation groups to ‘purchase’ whales lives.

Common minke whale image

Common minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

A price tag on whales

Despite a global ban on commercial whaling introduced in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), whaling still continues today. While a certain number of whales are allowed to be caught by indigenous peoples, countries such as Iceland and Norway continue to catch whales commercially. Japan continues to hunt whales by exploiting a loophole, hunting whales under an exemption for “scientific” whaling.

The number of whales caught each year has even increased since the ban was introduced, almost doubling to 2,000 individuals when compared with the numbers caught in the early 1990s.

The proposed quota system would set limits on the number of whales each country could hunt, and these quotas could then be traded and bought between countries, or by environmental groups. By selling their quota, whalers would then be able to make a profit without killing the animals.

Fin whale image

Fin whale being processed

Sustainable quotas

While scientists propose that this quota system may actually reduce the number of whales killed each year, some conservationists may not be happy with the placing of a ‘price tag’ on the life of a whale. Currently, the profit from whaling stands at around $13,000 (£8,500) for a minke whale, and $85,000 (£55,400) for an endangered fin whale.

Scientists say that by using the money environmental organisations usually spend on anti-whaling operations to purchase whale quota, the number of whales caught could potentially be reduced to zero.

The proposed quotas would be issued at sustainable levels, with the majority being issued to both whaling and non-whaling IWC member nations, and the remainder being auctioned with the proceeds going to whale conservation.

Fin whale image

An endangered fin whale

An end to the deadlock?

A previous attempt to introduce a whaling quota in 2010 failed due to objections from anti-whaling groups who felt that quotas would legitimise commercial whaling. Scientists hope that the proposed tradable whaling quota would break the deadlock, creating a market that would be economically and ecologically viable to both sides of the whaling argument.

Read more about this story in The Guardian, Quota market could save whales.

Read the original article in Nature: Conservation science: A market approach to saving the whales.

View images and videos of whales on ARKive.

Becky Moran, ARKive Species Text Author

Oct 19

Scientists have increased their estimate of the number of humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean, according to a report published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Photo of humpback whales, two adults breaching

The revised estimate follows analysis of data compiled in 2008 as part of the largest survey ever undertaken to assess humpback whale populations in the North Pacific.

Photographic survey

The original study, known as the ‘Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks’ (SPLASH), was a three-year project involving scientists from a number of different countries. The project used photographs to determine whale numbers, relying on the unique fluke patterns of the whales to identify individuals.

By matching photos from the species’ northern feeding grounds around the Pacific Rim with photographs of the same individuals in the warm tropical waters of their southern feeding grounds, the scientists were able to produce an estimate of the overall humpback whale population.

Photo of humpback whale fluke

The pattern of pigmentation on a humpback whale’s tail fluke is unique and can be used like a ‘fingerprint’ to identify individuals

The 2008 study originally estimated humpback whale numbers in the North Pacific at just under 20,000 individuals, based on a preliminary examination of the data. However, the new report indicates the population to be over 21,000, or possibly even higher.

According to Dr Jay Barlow, a researcher at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, “These improved numbers are encouraging… We feel the numbers may even be larger since there have been across-the-board increases in known population areas and unknown areas have probably seen the same increases.”

Photo of humpback whale swimming

Humpback whale recovery

One of the major targets of the whaling industry, the humpback whale population was decimated by commercial whaling during the 20th century. However, the new population estimate shows a significant improvement on the 1,400 individuals recorded at the end of commercial whaling in 1966.

Although the humpback whale is still vulnerable to a range of threats, including marine pollution and climate change, these figures give encouraging evidence that the species is recovering from overexploitation.

Photo of a pair of humpback whales with extended throat pleats

This latest revision to the study provides an accurate estimate for humpback whales in an entire ocean that could not have been possible without researchers working together to pool data,” said John Calambokidis, one of the founders of Cascadia Research.

While populations of some other whale species remain very low, this shows that humpback whales are among those that have recovered strongly from whaling.”

View the original Marine Mammal Science article.

Read more on this story at Eurekalert – New, higher estimates of endangered humpback whales in the North Pacific.

View photos and videos of the humpback whale on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Mar 15

A new study by scientists at the University of St Andrews has found that beaked whales are particularly sensitive to unusual sounds, such as sonar.

Photo of a Blainville's beaked whale breaching

Blainville's beaked whale breaching

Sonar linked to whale strandings

The use of sonar for naval communication has been linked to beaked whales stranding in the past, with concerns that the whale deaths may be directly linked to the mid-frequency signals.

Strandings along the coast are thought to occur when whales become disorientated and are unable to follow their usual routes.

Working with some of the world’s marine experts, the scientists investigated how sonar affected beaked whales in the Bahamas. They monitored the reaction of Blainville’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris) to both simulated sonar calls and live sonar calls during naval exercises in the area.

The researchers were able to listen to the group of whales using underwater microphones, called hydrophones, and electronic tags attached to the whales allowed the team to track the whales’ movements using satellites.

Loud noises disrupt whales’ behaviour

The scientists discovered that sonar caused the whales to stop making the clicking and buzzing calls which they use to navigate and communicate. The whales also ceased foraging and moved quickly away from the loud noises.

Photo of an adult male Blainville’s beaked whale

Adult male Blainville’s beaked whale

According to David Moretti, Principal Investigator for the U.S. Navy, the results indicate that “the animals prematurely stop vocalisations during a deep foraging dive when exposed to sonar. They then ascend slowly and move away from the source, but they do resume foraging dives once they are farther away.”

Although beaked whales are known to emit high-frequency calls, this study is the first to show the whales also react to mid-frequency sounds.

Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientist on the research project, says “We showed that the animals reacted to the sonar sound at much lower levels than had previously been assumed to be the case. We now think that, in some unusual circumstances, they are just unable to get out of the way and this ends up with the animals stranding and dying.

Photo of a biologist performing a post mortem on a Sowerby’s beaked whale

A biologist performing a post mortem on a Sowerby’s beaked whale, one of the most common species to become stranded around the British coast.

Sensitivity of marine mammals to noise may have far-reaching implications

Perhaps one of the most important findings of this new research is the discovery that beaked whales are scared by virtually anything unusual. This may have wider implications for the marine environment, with offshore wind farms, oil rigs and passing ships potentially posing further threats to marine mammals.

Professor Boyd indicates that these other sounds may be more dangerous than sonar as they can be heard constantly, possibly affecting the feeding and reproductive cycles of marine mammals such as whales.

Read the full study, published in the journal PLoS One.

Find out more about beaked whales on ARKive.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

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