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Rights wronged: North Pacific right whale nearly extinct in Bering Sea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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North Pacific Right WhaleOne of the world’s only two populations of North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) has declined to the point where it will probably not survive.

According to new research published online June 30 in Biology Letters, a journal of the Royal Society in London, the eastern population of North Pacific right whale has shrunk to approximately 30 members, only eight of which are female, possibly making it the world’s smallest whale population.

The eastern population of this whale species lives in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. A genetically distinct western population in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk is believed to number as few as 300 or as many as 900 whales. The two populations are considered isolated from one another and have not been known to mingle. Neither population is well studied because the whales are so rare.

The paper calls the near-disappearance of the species a “direct consequence of uncontrolled and illegal whaling, and highlights the past failure of international management to prevent such abuses.” The researchers also warn of the increased possibility of whale deaths due to ship strikes as ice over the Northwest Passage melts.

The study was led by Paul Wade of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, whose team conducted both aerial photographic surveys and genotyping of tissue samples from right whales in the Bering Sea. The photographic surveys revealed 31 unique whales, whereas the genotyping identified just 28.

Until 2000, scientists thought that there was just one species of right whale. Research has since shown that there are actually three species, of which the North Pacific right whale is the most endangered.

Photo: North Pacific Right Whale by John Durban, NOAA.

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  1. 1. ND3G 9:47 am 07/7/2010

    More needs to be done to stop illegal whaling but even more importantly something needs to be done to educate the the people who continue to purchase and consume whale meat.

    I don’t care in the slightest if people think they have a cultural right to eat whale meat or falsely believe it has some healing/aphrodisiac qualities. And I certainly don’t care if it affects someone livelihood. Times change and people have to change with them.

    In my opinion our only hope at this point is that scientists will be able to map the genetic code of all these endangered species and bring them back someday when the world doesn’t have its head shoved so far up its own ass.

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  2. 2. the Gaul 4:10 pm 07/7/2010

    Your comment doesn’t go far enough. It isn’t that illegal whaling should be stopped; ALL whaling should be stopped.
    We here in the U.S. are supposed to have this powerful Navy. Time for them to do something worthwhile and send all Japanese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and any other country’s whalers to the bottom.

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  3. 3. AtlantaTerry 9:44 am 07/8/2010

    Watch the Japanese whale meat market. Now that these whales are rare the meat is worth much more which means they will be harvested even faster! Yum!

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  4. 4. CaliLivin' 4:14 am 07/9/2010

    Everyone/culture has a right to their own traditions and morals. In America, we tend to frown on any type of whaling activity– legal or not. The Japanese, in contrast, generally feel that whaling is an ancient tradition that they have every entitlement to. However, the issues of traditions and/or healing/aphrodisiac qualities merely scratch the surface of the real problems surrounding whaling.

    I often read articles or blogs and talk with both Americans and Japanese about the issues surrounding modern day whaling, and while it is a passionate argument, I feel that arguing against whaling because the creature is smart or beautiful or full of mercury or whatever other emotional reasoning is presented does not do the whales justice.

    The most important fact to remember is that whales are not fish or cows or chickens or pigs. Whales take a LONG time to reproduce, be born, grow up, and sail into their elderly years. Where a fish can produce millions of eggs at a relatively frequent rate, whales may only give birth to one calf, and in many species of whales, does not happen until around age 12-14. These are almost human-like rates. Cows are raised specifically for consumption, just like chicken and pigs. Fish there are plenty of. Wait. No there isn’t. There are not plenty of fish left in the sea. And if an animal that is so abundant and was put here solely for the purpose of food can be over-hunted, then what does that mean for the slow-reproducing, not abundant (not even naturally abundant) whale? It means bad news.

    I hope that such an intelligent, seemingly warm-hearted nation of people living on such a magnificently beautiful island (Japan ) can see the light and realize that they are, in fact, damaging the whale’s numbers.

    As for the culture/tradition argument, Papua New Guineans used to be cannibals– meaning they used to eat humans. Does that mean it would be okay for that tradition to continue into modern day times? Thank goodness they modernized with the times. Now it’s time for one of the most modernized, technically advanced peoples (Japanese ) on the planet to follow suit.

    P.S. You may ask yourself why I am picking on the Japanese and not mentioning the Norwegian or Icelandic people. I focus on Japan first and foremost because I expect better from them. Secondly, Japan leaves their own waters and seeks down these whales all over the globe. The Japanese whalers are inescapable to the whales, resulting in a larger percentage of whales being killed. Where whaling in Norway may be seasonal, in Japan it’s year round.

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  5. 5. Grasshopper1 10:31 am 07/17/2010

    We need to educate people on the destruction of wildlife. If the Japanese learn what they’re doing to the ecosystem, they’ll try to reverse what they’ve done.

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  6. 6. Neptunerover 9:22 am 07/21/2010

    If they’d just hurry up and eat all the whales, then there wouldn’t be this problem. The problem would be whatever is next on the menu.
    The problem is the overpopulation of humans. People can’t be controlled. The whales are a lost cause.
    Here’s an idea: Let’s keep all the people we can alive, so then we can watch them destroy the earth because the environment cannot handle our vast numbers.
    Humans are overpopulated on this planet. There’s no escaping it as a root cause of so many current woes.

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  7. 7. Tim Upham 11:07 pm 01/24/2013

    The problem with the North Pacific right whale is with it being down to just 30 individuals, it can breed itself out of existence. If a bull and cow can find each other, and when they do, are they related? If they are, then the calf would not be resistant to parasites and diseases.

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