West Greenland Beluga Whales at Risk of Extinction

TROMSO, Norway, September 12, 2002 (ENS) - Beluga whales in West Greenland waters are too few in number to continue with present harvesting levels, according to a newly published assessment by the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). Present harvests are several times the sustainable yield, and, if continued, will likely lead to extinction of these white whales "within 20 years," warns a scientific committee of the commission.


Pod of beluga whales (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Composed of three whaling nations - Greenland, Iceland and Norway, and the Danish Faroe Islands - the 10 year old commission has for two years been planning harvest quotas for belugas, narwhals and walruses. To date, these quotas are not in effect.

Greenland had decided to introduce quotas on walrus, and regulatory proposals have been drafted to halt the decline of walruses along the west coast of the world's largest island.

Operating separately from the International Whaling Commission, to which most nations belong, the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) marked its 10th anniversary in Ilulissat, Greenland with a Council meeting February 5 to 7, 2002.

This NAMMCO Council meeting heard reports of its Scientific Committee on various marine species. Observers from the governments of Canada, Denmark, Japan and the Russian Federation attended along with several intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare says this regional "rival" to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an attempt to undercut the IWC by questioning its legitimacy and authority. The IWC has had a ban on all commercial whaling in place since 1986.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, based in the United Kingdom, says that NAMMCO is "openly challenging the IWC and the concept of international regulation of whaling, contrary to all accepted legal and procedural norms."

The two other North Atlantic countries invited by the four founders to become full members of NAMMCO, Canada and Russia, have not joined.

Still, opening the council meeting, Hans Enoksen, Greenland Minister of Fisheries, Hunting and Settlements, expressed satisfaction with NAMMCO's progress and says the organization has gained international recognition.

The Scientific Committee reports that beluga whales in the West Greenland area in winter are depleted to less than 25 percent of their abundance in 1950s, and more likely are 20 percent or less of their abundance 40 to 50 years ago. "Landed catches in the 1990s are not sustainable, and are the reason for the continuing decline," their report states.

The models all estimate a sustainable harvest to be around 100 whales per year, and certainly not more than 150 beluga killed annually at current population size.

"Immediate reductions in catch to even 500 beluga, and subsequent reductions to 100 beluga annually over one to three more years all produce a halt to the decline and a low risk that the population in 2011 will be lower than the population in 2001," the scientific committee said.


A narwhal surfaces. The number of remaining narwhal worldwide is estimated at 25,000 to 30,000. (Photo courtesy Narwhal-Whales)
For the one-tusked small whale called narwhal, the scientists were not able to gather enough information to produce an assessment in the Baffin Bay area or adjacent areas. They found evidence for the existence of several populations of narwhal in the area, rather than a single one, as previously thought, but said it is likely these rare whales are being overharvested.

The assessment for West Greenland beluga has been completed, so the NAMMCO Council asked the Scientific Committee to concentrate its assessment efforts on the West Greenland narwhal in the coming year.

NAMMCO has its eye on a humpback whale hunt in the near future. There are indications from North Atlantic Sightings Surveys conducted by NAMMCO that "the stock of humpback whales around Iceland has increased rapidly over the past 15 years," the council said, and asked scientific committee to complete abundance estimates for this species "as a high priority."

The scientists did not have enough information to make assessments of North Atlantic fin whales, although a satellite tagging and biopsy program is underway. The Faroe Islands plans a larger scale tagging program once "technical problems with the tagging of large whales" are resolved.

Work on quantifying the interactions between marine mammals and fisheries is at the top of the NAMMCO Scientific Committee's agenda. Whaling nations contend that predation by marine mammals is a cause of declining fish populations in the North Atlantic, and use this argument as a justification for hunting whales.

The committee is trying to gather information on the stomach contents of white-beaked, white-sided and bottlenose dolphins. Norway emphasised that "there is a crucial need for stomach samples from these species because they are relatively abundant and may interact significantly with fisheries." Only the Faroe Islands hunts these species, and an application for a scientific take of white-sided dolphins last year was rejected by the Norwegian authorities.

Populations of grey seals have apparently declined in Icelandic waters over the past 15 years, but have increased in many areas of the North Atlantic. This species is both harvested and interacts with fisheries in three NAMMCO member countries. The Scientific Committee was asked to provide a new assessment of grey seal numbers throughout the North Atlantic.


Fin whale (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The 2001 NAMMCO North Atlantic Sightings Surveys covered much of the central and northeast Atlantic, with participation from the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway. Target species for the survey were minke and fin whales, but all species encountered were recorded. Abundance estimates for target and other species are now being calculated by the scientific committee.

Faroese and Norwegian research vessels, which had planned to include waters around the United Kingdom in their survey, were denied access to this area at the last moment.

NAMMCO says its "larger goal" is to "apply an ecosystem approach to the study and management of marine mammals."

Japanís whale research programs are providing "valuable scientific information related to interactions between cetaceans and fisheries," the Council said, and expressed its continued support for this research.

Whale conservation groups and the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, among others, object to Japan's whale research program. Under the guise of research, its critics say, Japanese whalers unnecessarily kill hundreds of minke whales each year and recently dozens of sei, sperm, and Bryde's whales as well.

The commission plans to hold an international conference on integrating user knowledge and scientific knowledge in management decision making, to be held in Iceland in January 2003. The conference will bring together hunters, managers and scientists to discuss how the two knowledge systems differ and how they are similar.