Whale-watching: bad news and good

First, the bad news: the current issue of Biology Letters reports the extinction of the baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, in what amounts to the official publication of an earlier announcement that the species could no longer be found in its already limited habitat. That would make the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) the first cetacean to wiped from the face of the Earth by humans. That we know of. Not one has been seen for about a decade. I suppose it's a testament to the species' tenacity that it held on as long as it did, considering the hellish environment in which it was living -- one of the most polluted and traffic-clogged rivers in the world.

Samuel T. Turvey of the Zoological Society of London and his team report:

This represents the first global extinction of a large vertebrate for over 50 years, only the fourth disappearance of an entire mammal family since AD 1500, and the first cetacean species to be driven to extinction by human activity. Immediate and extreme measures may be necessary to prevent the extinction of other endangered cetaceans, including the sympatric Yangtze finless porpoise.

The good news is found in the same journal: the Eastern Arctic bowhead whale is making a comeback.

The fate of this population (or populations) has been quite controversial. As recently as the late 1990s, some estimates had no more than 300 remaining, from a pre-whaling population as large as 22,000 or more. Overhunting was the problem, and Canadian governments recently allowed the resumption of Inuit bowhead hunts, raising the hackles of many an environmentalist (including some who paid me to write scientific reports on the situation).

The concern was that, even the limited take permitted by the Inuit -- the indigenous people of Nunavut -- of just one every two years could prove dangerous for such a small population. No hunts of similarly threatened land mammals are permitted anywhere. But by the 21st century, new surveys were putting the number of bowheads in the waters between Greenland and Baffin Island, and in Hudson Bay and surrounding areas, at well over a 1,000 and possibly as high as 3,000. Some degree of controversy remains about the validity of these survey.

But the new report, by veteran whale researchers Mads Peter Heide-Jorgensen and Kristin Laidre of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and others says they found 1229 bowheads wintering near the west coast of Greenland, where few had been seen in years. If the study stands up, this is good news indeed.

There are some provisos. The new survey is based on techniques that involved, among other tools, satellite tracking of just 9 whales and "high-resolution surface time from 14 whales instrumented with time-depth recorders." While typical of whale research techniques, this doesn't sound like a lot. And the number-crunching produces a generous 95% confidence interval of 495-2939. So we shouldn't celebrate too much just yet. But it is beginning to look like the bowheads of the Eastern Arctic are making a healthy comeback.

They're nowhere near as healthy a population as the bowheads that live on the other side of the Northwest Passage, the so-called Chukchi-Bering-Beaufort whales, of which there are upwards of 9,000. And future climate change in the Arctic is likely to play havoc with marine ecosystems, so who knows what's in the store in the coming decades?

Still, at least all the news isn't all bad on the whale-watching front.


More like this

Monday we heard that a group of rogue Makah Indians killed a gray whale without going through the red tape that they're supposed to (or bothering to land it). Tuesday comes a new study that shows the eastern Pacific gray whale population, from which the doomed creature was taken, isn't doing as…
China's white dolphin called extinct after 20 million years: An expedition searching for a rare Yangtze River dolphin ended Wednesday without a single sighting and with the team's leader saying one of the world's oldest species was effectively extinct. The white dolphin known as baiji, shy and…
The plight of just two humpback whales that got themselves lost up the Sacramento River has got the nation transfixed. This sort of thing happens every few years. Back in 1988, it was three gray whales trapped in the ice on the north slope of Alaska. It's curious how we, as in news directors, get…
The grey whale is always held up as an icon of success of the Endangered Species Act. While it's true that gray whale numbers have rebounded from near extinction to 22,000 whales today, a new study released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the grey whale…

I had a friend who wanted to study these in graduate school. Too late.