Bowhead Whales

From: Jennifer Philips (jphilips@telocity.com)
Date: Wed May 09 2001 - 16:31:25 EDT


Dear Jen,
    I am doing an endangered species project at school on Bowhead Whales and
I have to include an interview. My questions are:
    1. What is the species' habitat?
    2. What niche in its ecosystem does the species occupy?
    3. Is the species endangered in one area only or is it in danger
worldwide?
    4. How do we know that the species is endangered?
    5. How might the disappearance of this species affect other organisms,
including humans?
    6. How might humans change what we are doing so that we can ensure the
survival of the endangered species? How might these changes affect society?

                         Sincerely,
                         Carmela Mendoza
                         Grade 8
                         Archbishop Carney Secondary School
                         Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada
--------------------------

Carmela,

Here are my answers:

    1. What is the species' habitat?
Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) are found in the Arctic only. They are
(or at one time were) circumpolar (which means that they encircled the pole
in the Arctic ocean). Their movements appear to be determined at least in
part by the amount of ice pack. They feed on small zooplankton, like krill
and other crustaceans.

    2. What niche in its ecosystem does the species occupy?
Bowhead's occupy a top level niche - they feed very low in the food chain,
and yet have very few, if any predators (killer whales are their only known
predators, other than humans).

    3. Is the species endangered in one area only or is it in danger
worldwide?
Five separate populations of the bowhead whale have been proposed to exist
around the Arctic, and all are severely endangered. In total, there are
believed to be less than 5,000 bowheads left.

    4. How do we know that the species is endangered?
We conduct population estimate studies in which we attempt to obtain an
accurate count of the numbers of whales left. Through these studies, we know
that the population size is very low. Before whaling it is estimated that
there were more than 40,000 bowheads in the Arctic. That is a severe
depletion of the population! Also, the population does not seem to be
recovering since whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission
30 years ago. Their numbers remain low. Bowheads, therefore, are most
certainly endangered today.

    5. How might the disappearance of this species affect other organisms,
including humans?
It is difficult to estimate how the disappearance of a species will effect
the ecosystem on a long term. It is possible that because there are so few
bowheads left today, their total disappearance would have no further impact.
I tend to believe that this is not true. The relatively few individuals left
continue to utilize their habitat, feeding on swarms of zooplankton both
near the surface and sitting on the bottom of the ocean. If they do not feed
on that prey, the prey will be eaten by something else. That something else
would thus have access to more food and could get stronger. The increase in
numbers of that something else could effect a second something else which
happens to feed on the first, and so on. It is just difficult to predict how
the complete loss of a species effects the ecosystem as a whole. As humans,
we have the responsibility of ensuring that we manage our planet's
sustainable resources - even bowhead whales. We should never disregard the
disappearance of a species, or clain that we can live just fine without it.

    6. How might humans change what we are doing so that we can ensure the
survival of the endangered species? How might these changes affect society?
This ties into the last question, particularly my last statements about
human responsibility. As a society, we strongly need to develop a much less
selfish approach to the environment. Often, the needs of the environment are
weighed against our own needs. If we decide that we just cannot do without
that new oil drilling platform because our gas prices are too high and we
need more oil to bring them back down, often the impact of that new platform
is disregarded. We have to change this mentality. We have to develop good,
responsible, clean policies which allow for the health of the environment,
on a long term, while continuing to allow for our own continued health. This
might mean that we have to change some of our ways, perhaps sacrifice some
luxury or convenience. As a society, we have to understand that it is not
just the "environment" we are sacrificing for, it is our planet. Bowhead
need to continued and unwavering protection of our laws if they are to
survive extinction and recover to their former numbers.

Thanks! Good luck on your project!
Jen Philips



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