AR-News: New Study Could Affect Whaling Policies
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Sun Jul 27 08:57:48 EDT 2003
Science - AP
New Study Could Affect Whaling Policies
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By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Research indicating that whales may have
been much more plentiful in the North Atlantic could
mean it will be years before populations recover to a
level where hunting could resume. However, the finding
is being questioned by scientists in both pro- and
Commercial whale hunting is now banned because stocks
were sharply reduced in more than a century of
hunting. But some countries, including Iceland and
Japan, want to resume the hunts.
If stocks were really much larger in the past, new
hunts could be delayed by the International Whaling
Commission (news - web sites) until the whale
population builds closer to original levels. The
commission says hunting should not be allowed until
the population reaches at least 54 percent of the
ocean's carrying capacity for the mammals.
Stephen R. Palumbi of Stanford University and Joe
Roman of Harvard University used DNA analysis to
estimate historical whale populations in the North
Atlantic. They concluded that because of wide
variation in whale DNA, stocks in the past were much
larger than had been thought.
Using the totals from the new DNA study would require
the moratorium on fin and humpback whales, at least,
to be continued for 30 to 100 years, Palumbi said.
"We dare not base our whole approach to the natural
world on phantom knowledge of what the past was like
we need to know what the past was," Palumbi said.
But their findings were questioned by researchers in
the United States which has voted against allowing
whaling to resume and in Iceland.
Current North Atlantic estimates are 10,000 humpback,
56,000 fin and 149,000 minke whales.
In their paper, published in Friday's issue of the
journal Science, Roman and Palumbi conclude that the
pre-hunting stocks totaled 240,000 humpback, 360,000
fin and 265,000 minke whales.
That revises previous estimates, based on hunting
counts and reports from mariners, which said the
pre-hunting whale populations in the North Atlantic
were 20,000 humpbacks and 30,000 to 50,000 fin whales,
according to the researchers said. They said
historical estimates for minke are harder to come by,
but noted the commission uses a figure of about
Both said they were surprised at how much higher their
findings were than traditional numbers.
So were other whale experts.
Tim Smith, fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fishery
Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, said he
thinks the research paper is premature.
Smith said the new numbers are so much higher that the
difference needs to be explained.
Roman and Palumbi "say the catch history must be
faulty. My evaluation is that those historical
catches, although there are uncertainties, can't be
off as far as those numbers imply," Smith said.
Johann Sigurjonsson, director general of the Marine
Research Institute in Reykjavik, Iceland, said it is
"impossible" that so many fin and humpback whales
lived in the North Atlantic prior to hunting.
"There is no way that whaling activities in the 19th
and 20th centuries removed sufficient number of whales
that could give rise to such high pre-exploitation
stock sizes as indicated by the current genetic
study," Sigurjonsson said.
He said Roman and Palumbi assume that whale fertility
and age at maturity are constant, while these are
actually variable, which could affect how much their
Thorvaldur Gunnlaugsson, a whale researcher at the
institute, said other studies of mitochondrial DNA
from whales have been inconclusive, noting there were
variations between beluga whales at most locations.
He added that there are several documented instances
of hybrids of blue and fin whales which appeared
healthy and reproductive, "so genetic drift between
these species and possibly minke, sei and bryde whales
is not excluded. Certainly genetic drift between the
different forms of minke whales would be more likely."
Iceland has sought permission to hunt whales, as has
Japan in the Pacific. Norway has ignored the ban since
1993. Japan does hunt whales for scientific purposes
and Iceland has said it may begin doing the same. The
pro-whaling countries have been backed by some
Caribbean and African countries.
At the commission's meeting in Germany last month, the
United States joined with other anti-whaling countries
to defeat a Japanese proposal to resume commercial
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