Sunday, October 30, 2011

World's Smallest Whale Population Faces Extinction

The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska once teemed with North Pacific right whales.
They were dubbed "right whales" because whalers regarded them as the "right" ones to hunt: they floated when killed and often swam within sight of shore. But hunting in the 19th century wiped out most of them, with up to 30,000 slaughtered in the 1840s alone. Hunting was banned in 1935 but Soviet poaching during the 1950-60s made North Pacific right whales the most endangered species of whale on Earth.
Its current precarious status is a direct consequence of this uncontrolled and illegal whaling. Now numbering only about 30 individuals, only eight of them females, the eastern North Pacific right whale falls below the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) threshold of likely viability as a species. It's probable this small population will not survive. Ahhh, the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons...
A genetically distinct population of right whales in the western Northern Pacific is in slightly better shape with several hundred individuals, but is nonetheless listed as "critically endangered" on the IUCN's Red List, the most scientifically respected index of threat level. The two populations are considered isolated from one another and have not been known to mingle.
Right whales across the northern Pacific are also vulnerable to ship collisions, because they cross a major trans-Pacific shipping lane as they move to/from feeding and breeding grounds.
Right whales are playful and inquisitive swimmers. They tend to move slowly, crashing into the water with dramatic displays of power. Their acrobatic antics charm avid whale viewers, as they come close in-shore during their calving season.

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