Baleen whales: conservation issues and the status of the most endangered populations

Authors

  • Phillip J. Clapham,

    1. National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02540, USA *Humane Society of the United States, 22 Washburn Street, Bourne, MA 02532, USA  National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, CA 92038, USA
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  • Sharon B. Young,

    1. National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02540, USA *Humane Society of the United States, 22 Washburn Street, Bourne, MA 02532, USA  National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, CA 92038, USA
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  • Robert L. Brownell Jr

    1. National Marine Fisheries Service, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02540, USA *Humane Society of the United States, 22 Washburn Street, Bourne, MA 02532, USA  National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, CA 92038, USA
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Abstract

Most species of baleen whales were subject to intensive overexploitation by commercial whaling in this and previous centuries, and many populations were reduced to small fractions of their original sizes. Here, we review the status of baleen whale stocks, with an emphasis on those that are known or thought to be critically endangered. Current data suggest that, of the various threats potentially affecting baleen whales, only entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes may be significant at the population level, and then only in those populations which are already at critically low abundance. The impact of some problems (vessel harassment, and commercial or aboriginal whaling) is at present probably minor. For others (contaminants, habitat degradation, disease), existing data either indicate no immediate cause for concern, or are insufficient to permit an assessment. While the prospect for many baleen whales appears good, there are notable exceptions; populations that are of greatest concern are those suffering from low abundance and associated problems, including (in some cases) anthropogenic mortality. These include: all Northern Right Whales Eubalaena glacialis, Bowhead Whales Balaena mysticetus of the Okhotsk Sea and various eastern Arctic populations, western Gray Whales Eschrichtius robustus, and probably many Blue Whale Balaenoptera musculus populations. We review the status of these populations and, where known, the issues potentially affecting their recovery. Although Humpback Whales Megaptera novaeangliae and Southern Right Whales Eubalaena australis were also heavily exploited by whaling, existing data indicate strong recovery in most studied populations of these species.

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