Subject: New Study Warns Whale Populations Too Low for Hunting

New Study Warns Whale Populations Too Low for HuntingNew Study Warns
Whale Populations Too Low for Hunting

PALO ALTO, California, July 25, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists have underestimated the
number of humpbacks and other great whales that inhabited the North Atlantic Ocean
before the advent of whaling, according to geneticists from Stanford and Harvard

The findings, published today in the journal Science, could cast grave doubts on
the scientific rationale used by countries that advocate lifting a 17-year
moratorium on commercial whaling established by the London-based
International Whaling Commission (IWC), the scientists say.

The IWC, which is the main organization that regulates whaling, has
policies that will allow for the resumption of commercial hunting when populations
reach a little more than half of their historic numbers.

But the findings of the new study expose a problem with this policy, which relies
on historic estimates of unconfirmed whaling records dating back to the mid-1800s,
says Stephen Palumbi, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford and co-author
of the study.

"It is well known that hunting dramatically reduced all baleen whale populations, yet reliable estimates of former whale abundances are elusive," wrote Palumbi and
Harvard graduate student Joe Roman, lead author of the study. "Whaling logbooks
provide clues, but may be incomplete, intentionally under reported or fail to
consider hunting loss."

Roman and Palumbi say their study is the first to use genetics rather than whaling
records to confirm the number of whales that used to exist.
The new study casts some doubt on the International Whaling Commission's
historical baseline of some whale populations, including humpbacks. (Photo courtesy

"The genetics of populations has within it information about the past," Palumbi explained. "If you can read the amount of genetic variation ­ the difference in DNA
from one individual whale to another ­ and calibrate that, then you can estimate
the historic size of the population."

The scientists focused on the genetics of North Atlantic humpback, fin and minke
whales ­ three species decimated in the mid-19th and early-20th centuries by the
demand for whale oil, baleen and meat.

"The genetics we have done of whales in the North Atlantic says that, before
whaling, there were a total of 800,000 to 900,000 humpback, fin and minke whales ­
far greater numbers than anybody ever thought," Palumbi said.

Comparing DNA samples from 188 humpback whales, Roman and Palumbi determined that the historic population in the North Atlantic may have been 240,000,
some 12 times greater than the IWC estimate.

Using these results, Palumbi estimated that the worldwide humpback population could
have been as high as 1.5 million ­ more than 10 times the IWC's global historical
estimate of 100,000.

After analyzing DNA samples from 87 minke whales, the scientists concluded that the
pre-whaling North Atlantic minke population was at least 265,000. This is roughly
twice the number of minkes that inhabit the North Atlantic today, according to the

A minke whale is hauled aboard a Japanese factory ship in the Southern
Ocean - Japanese officials at the IWC contend there are too many whales in the

An analysis of the DNA of 253 fin whales yielded similar results ­ Roman and Palumbi concluded that the pre-whaling population was about 360,000, some 10 times
higher than the IWC¹s historical estimate. The IWC estimates that today¹s fin whale
population is about 56,000.

Reconciling these number is an essential component of future whale conservation, Palumbi says.

Under the current policies of the IWC, which declared a worldwide moratorium on
commercial whaling in 1986, a majority of its 51 members could lift the moratorium
and allow whale hunting in regions where populations has reached 54 percent of its
original carrying capacity.

"This is a real conundrum," Palumbi said. "Humpback whales, for example, were thought to have numbered about 20,000 in the North Atlantic, and we are up to about
10,000 now, so at that rate, the IWC could allow countries to start killing humpbacks within the next decade."

"But if the historic population was really 240,000, as the genetics suggests, then
we would not be able to start whaling for another 70 to 100 years."

Roman and Palumbi write that in light of their findings, current populations of
humpback or fin whales are "far from harvestable."

Minke whales are closer to genetically defined population limits, they wrote, and
hunting decisions regarding them "must be based on other data".

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