Arctic Bowhead Whale Population Rebounding Despite Warming

graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

Bowhead whale populations have nearly returned to their numbers pre-commercial whaling. An update from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration suggests that even in spite of Arctic warming, Bowhead whales have multiplied in Alaskan waters.  The western Arctic population of Bowhead whales had rebounded to about 10,000 individuals by the turn of the 21st century and now number at least 16,800.  The success in whale conservation has also paved the way for the discovery of new species. Off the coast of Mexico, researchers have found a new species of beaked whale, a good sign for whales across the world.

Why this Matters:  Bowhead whales were once nearly extinct, as commercial whalers at the turn of the twentieth century hunted them for their oil, blubber, and baleen. However, the end of commercial whaling, the natural inaccessibility of their icy habitats, and the sustainable management of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission have brought this species back from the brink. It goes to show that cooperation among indigenous hunters, policymakers, and researchers can accomplish major conservation goals. Moreover, the species’ long life and sensitivity to changes can help researchers understand how a key species in the Arctic is adapting, even as warming there worsens.

A Conservation Success Story

“This is really one of the great conservation successes of the last century,” J Craig George, a retired biologist with the North Slope borough department of wildlife management, told The Guardian.  According to George, the success is a result of the sustainable management and stewardship of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), which has consistently challenged efforts to permit offshore oil drilling and other activities that could harm the species.  “No one has fought harder than the AEWC to protect bowhead habitat from industrial development in the US Arctic,” George said to the Guardian.

A Surprise for Biologists

Though biologists would have expected Bowhead whales to suffer from the melting sea ice, the whales have not only survived but thrived in spite of these changes. Previously, the ice covering Alaska’s northwest waters was too thick for them to break, but melting ice has also let Bowheads move into new territory. As sea temperatures rise and the ice melting allows more light to shine on the ocean, krill have propagated in larger numbers. This increase in food allows Bowhead whales to have more and healthier babies, leading to a larger population.

That said, the Arctic is changing rapidly, potentially putting the Bowhead whales in jeopardy. If the Arctic continues to warm, the Bowhead whales’ thick blubber could harm them. Moreover, as more ice melts and as the whales move into new territory, they can get caught in fishing gear, fight other baleen whales for food, and get attacked by orcas, which risk depleting the bowhead populations once more.

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