~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ---------- Forwarded message ---------- Date: Fri, 24 Oct 97 12:35:00 GMT From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org 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 seen." 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 encouraging. 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 time.