North Pacific Humpback Whale Study Makes a Splash

HONOLULU, Hawaii, February 18, 2004 (ENS) - Endangered humpback whales across the entire North Pacific Ocean will be studied by hundreds of researchers from 10 Pacific Rim countries in the most comprehensive investigation of these whales ever attempted,, officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Tuesday.

On the grounds of the Honolulu Aquarium, overlooking waters where humpbacks can be seen during these winter months, Richard Spinrad, NOAA National Ocean Service assistant administrator, said that the long term goal of the $3.3 million, three year effort is "to recover the species to a viable, self-sustaining population throughout its range.”

"This is first time such a large number of scientists will collaborate in a study using standard protocols to collect data and share the results and make the information available to the whole research community," said Spinrad.


Humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The humpback whale was federally listed as an endangered species in 1973. Scientists estimate that the pre-whaling population of the North Pacific population of the humpback whales was 15,000. In 1992, the last year with a reliable estimate, there were about 7,000, and whale scientists say their numbers are slowly increasing now that a global moratorium on commercial whaling is in place.

Known as SPLASH - the Structure of Populations, Level of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks - the study is a partnership of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program and NOAA Fisheries. It is unprecedented in international cooperation and geographic scope.

“Hundreds of researchers from the U.S., Japan, Russia, Mexico, Canada, Philippines, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala are collaborating to understand the population structure of humpback whales across the North Pacific, and to assess the status, trends and potential human impacts to this population,” said Sam Pooley, acting administrator of the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office.

All scientists participating in the SPLASH study will take photographs of the whales to identify them individually and will collect samples of their tissue with biopsy darts.

The photos will focus on the whales' tails and their individual, unique patterns of pigmentation and scarring. The images will help answer questions such as how many humpbacks exist in the North Pacific and in specific wintering and feeding areas, and whether the whales are increasing or decreasing. The photos will also help scientists determine reproductive and mortality rates and obtain estimates of whale ages and sex distribution.


Distinctive humpback tail markings allow identification of individual whales. (Photo by Captain Budd Christman courtesy NOAA)
The photos will allow researchers to look for signs of human impact on the whales, such as vessel collisions and entanglement in ropes and nets. These impacts will show up as scars on their tails. The whales in the Gulf of Maine have been studied for human impacts, but entanglement rates of North Pacific humpback whales is still unknown.

The biopsy samples of skin and blubber, each about the size of a pencil eraser, will be taken with a stainless steel biopsy dart shot from a crossbow. Each dart is fitted with a flange that regulates penetration of the dart and causes recoil after sampling. Flotation material on the shaft of the dart allows it to float on the surface for retrieval.

The tissue samples will help scientists answer questions such as what contaminants, such as pesticides and PCBs, the whales have in their bodies, and will help determine their pregnancy rates and genetic diversity.

The photos will be archived in a library and the biopsy samples will be preserved in liquid nitrogen for current and future research.

Spinrad said Hawaii is physically and historically at the center of humpback whale research in the North Pacific, and the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary has played a major role helping to pull the project together.

“Hawaii research is scheduled during the winter season when the whales are here to mate and give birth,” said David Mattila, NOAA Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary researcher and rescue coordinator, who is chair of the SPLASH Steering Committee. “Some surveys have already been conducted in Hawaii, Japan and Mexico in order to catch the early arrivals.”

This summer, research will take place in Olympic Coast, Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones, Monterey Bay and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries.

Over the next three years, research will take place in all known humpback whale habitats throughout the North Pacific from the Bering Sea and Far East Russia south to Mexico and Costa Rica, and west to Hawaii and Asian tropical waters. Information gathered by the study will be translated and distributed to all participating countries.

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