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Bowhead whales: Modern and future threats to recovery

January 31, 2019


Katie Hearther

Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) are the only baleen whale that maintains a permanent residence in the Arctic Ocean. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) characterizes the species by four subpopulations: 1) Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort, 2) East Canada-West Greenland, 3) East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea, and 4) Okhotsk Sea. Bowhead whales across the Arctic were the target of massive, pre-20th-century commercial whaling efforts that severely depleted their population. Bowhead whales are currently listed as a species of “Least Concern” by the IUCN; however, current and future threats have the potential to jeopardize full population recovery if left unchecked. Present-day threats to the recovering bowhead whale population include, but are not limited to, entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, killer whale (Orcinus orca) predation, noise pollution, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Future threats to bowhead populations mainly arise as consequences of global, anthropogenic climate change. Warming ocean temperatures threaten to alter their habitat along the ice edge, vary their prey distribution, and allow for killer whale populations to expand northward. Decreased sea-ice extent in the Arctic Ocean will likely result in a higher probability of human-bowhead interaction as military operations, oil exploration expedition, industrial shipping vessels, and tourist excursions are allowed into this previously inaccessible area. International cooperation and mitigation of these threats are necessary to reduce the risk to recovering bowhead whales and the indigenous Inuit communities that still rely on them for subsistence hunting.

Subsistence whaling is essential for food security, for social and cultural well-being, and for passing down traditions that sustained Arctic indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The Russian Chukotka, Greenlandic Inuit, Alaskan Inupiat and Yupik, and the Makah Tribe in Washington state continue to hunt species such as grey, humpback, minke, and bowhead whales. Historically, the rights of indigenous people have been undermined in favor commercial profits and industrial expansion. Whaling also adds a tricky political argument into the mix, as citizens of many International Whaling Commission (IWC) countries oppose whaling on moral grounds. This is largely why the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling is still in place, despite continued objection and protest from countries such as Japan, Iceland, and Norway who wish to resume commercial hunting. As a result, whaling legislation on both the local and international level tends to attract large public attention due to the charismatic nature of whales.

 Bowhead whales are the only baleen whale that live in the Arctic year-round. For millennia they have sustained Arctic indigenous peoples, particularly the ancient Thule culture of Greenland. Bowhead whales and the communities relying on them are now faced with the ever growing industrialization of the Arctic as a result of decreasing sea ice extent, a consequence of anthropogenic climate change. Increased tourism, commercial shipping, and oil and gas exploration have the potential to change bowhead population dynamics in ways that are difficult to predict. Bowhead whales have been observed fleeing waters being tested with seismic airguns, and consequently leaving the waters accessible to indigenous hunters. The plight of the critically endangered Northern right whales should serve as a cautionary tale, since the industrialization of their habitat has led to fishing gear entanglement and vessel strikes becoming the number one cause of death. Avoiding a similar situation for bowhead whales will require cooperation and participation between governments with jurisdiction over Arctic waters (perhaps the Arctic Council), commercial shipping companies, the tourism industry, the fishing industry, and the indigenous whaling communities. Perhaps an agreement can be reached to avoid areas occupied by bowhead whales wherever possible, and if not, reducing vessel speeds and increasing vigilance in an effort to reduce the lethality of ship strikes. As an example of policy action, labeling fishing gear with the company/vessel name and penalizing them when whales are entangled may also incentivize the fishing industry to develop biodegradable gear or technology that prevents entanglement. One thing is for certain: the knowledge and needs of the whaling communities must be considered when developing rules and regulations, since their livelihood depends on it.

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