Subject: IWC: Blue whale may be coming back (fwd)

Mike Williamson (
Fri, 24 Oct 1997 14:19:02 -0400 (EDT)


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Date: Fri, 24 Oct 97 12:35:00 GMT 
Subject: Blue whale may be coming back

Blue whale may be coming back from near-extinction

    By Christine Tierney
     MONACO, Oct 24 (Reuters) - Blue whales, the largest mammals
on earth, may be rallying from near-extinction but it will be
years before anyone can be certain, scientists say.
     The International Whaling Commission (IWC), which is holding
its annual meeting in Monaco, estimates around 460 blue whales
live in the southern oceans, based on a study completed in 1991.
     A few hundred more may live in the northern hemisphere.
     "There are probably fewer than 1,000 left," said Sidney
Holt, a marine biologist at the International League for the
Protection of Cetaceans. "They're so rare, they're hardly ever
     In a recent 10-year study of their population, only 30 blue
whales were spotted even though they need to surface often,
taking breaths every two minutes on average, he said.
     At the start of the century, there were probably 250,000
blue whales, which can measure more than 35 metres (100 feet).
     "It's very difficult to find out if whale stocks are
increasing or decreasing. It will probably be another 10-15
years before we know if blue whales are increasing or not,"
said Holt, a longtime adviser to the scientific committee.
     "The rarer and more dispersed whales are, the less
accurately they can be counted. So it's a few hundred, plus or
minus several hundred percent," said Justin Cooke, a
mathematician with the World Conservation Union.
     The large whales have been protected from hunters for three
decades. Pollution, depletion of the ozone layer and ultraviolet
radiation pose the biggest threats today.
     "Ozone depletion is just as deadly as the whaler's harpoon.
Whale conservation is no longer just about how many whales we
can kill," said Steve Trent of the London-based Environmental
Investigation Agency, in a reference to the IWC hunting quotas.
     But some scientists say the anecdotal evidence on whales is
     Cooke said Icelandic data on whale sightings suggest the
blue whale is on the increase in the northern hemisphere. He
said there may be more than 1,000 in northern waters.
     The IWC's chairman Peter Bridgewater said signals picked up
by national defence monitoring systems may also suggest a rise
in the blue whale population.
     The blue is a member of the balleen, or toothless, whale
family. Of the balleen whales, which feed mainly on tiny shrimp,
the only abundant species is the minke.
     At under 10 metres (30 feet), it was ignored by 19th and
early 20th century commercial whalers who targetted the larger
balleen species, the blue, the fin, bowhead and humpback.
     The IWC estimates there are around 760,000 minke, which are
hunted today by Norwegian and Japanese whalers despite a 1982
moratorium on commercial whaling pending a study of whale
stocks. Over 1,000 minke were killed in the past 12 months.
     "The only whales we know have been increasing are the grey
whales and bowhead whales," Holt said.
     Around 8,000 bowhead are believed to live in the frigid
waters around Alaska, where they hide under the ice. American
Inuit natives are allowed to hunt close to 60 a year.
     Grey whales, hunted by the Siberian Inuit under an exemption
for aboriginal subsistence whaling, number around 21,000. Under
a joint U.S.-Russian quota, the Makah tribe of Washington state
will be allowed to hunt four grey whales a year.
     The other family of large whales are the toothed whales, the
biggest of which is the sperm whale. Estimates of its numbers
are wildly disparate, ranging from 20,000 to 600,000 just in the
North Atlantic, Cooke said.
     Scientists say sperm whales are hard to track because they
surface less often than balleen whales. They can dive miles
below the ocean surface, staying down for up to one hour at a