Megaptera novaeangliae 

Scope: Europe
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Balaenopteridae

Scientific Name: Megaptera novaeangliae (Borowski, 1781)
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English Humpback Whale
French Baleine à bosse, Jubarte, Mégaptère
Spanish Ballena Jorobada, Gubarte, Yubarta

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern (Regional assessment) ver 3.1
Year Published: 2007
Date Assessed: 2007-01-26
Needs updating
Assessor(s): Species account by IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group; regional assessment by European Mammal Assessment team
Reviewer(s): Greg Donovan and Philip Hammond
Reasonably good survey data are available for the two main feeding grounds that lie relatively close to the European Mammal Assessment region (Iceland and N Norway/Spitzbergen). Recent partial estimates include 13,900 individuals for Iceland (CI=3,900 – 29,000) and 889 for N Norway/Spitzbergen (CV 0.32) (IWC 2002, 2003). Not all of these are mature individuals. The global population is estimated to be increasing rapidly (3% per year), and the Iceland population may be increasing more rapidly still (surveys showed an increase of 11.4% per annum from 1986 to 2001, although immigration as well as population growth may be responsible for this) (IWC 2003). The species is rare in the European Mammal Assessment region (Reid et al. 2003). Although no quantitative estimates are available, it seems reasonable to suspect that the number of humpback whales present in the EMA area may be fewer than 1,000 mature individuals, the threshold for consideration as Vulnerable under Criterion D. However the humpback whale is highly mobile and travels large distances, and the animals in the EMA region are undoubtedly part of larger populations that extend outside the region and that are expanding rapidly in size. Consequently the category is downgraded by two steps to Least Concern.

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The humpback whale is a cosmopolitan species found in all the major ocean basins (Clapham and Mead 1999), and all but one subpopulation (that of the Arabian Sea) migrate between mating and calving grounds in tropical waters, usually near continental coastlines or island groups, and productive colder waters in temperate and high latitudes.

Humpbacks are abundant throughout the Antarctic in summer south to the ice edge, but not within the pack ice zone. In the winter, Southern Hemisphere populations are aggregated into specific nearshore breeding areas in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific, two of which extend north of the equator, e.g. off Colombia in the eastern Pacific and in the Bight of Benin in the Atlantic. Some wintering grounds are fairly localised, for example around island groups, and some are more diffuse, for example along the western coast of Southern Africa and the southern coast of west Africa.

In the North Atlantic, they range in summer from Gulf of Maine in the west and Ireland in the east, and up to but not into the pack ice in the north; the northern extent of the humpback’s range includes the Barents Sea, Greenland Sea and Davis Strait, but not the Canadian Arctic. They occur mainly in specific feeding areas. In the winter the great majority of whales migrate to wintering grounds in the West Indies, while an apparently small number of animals still utilize a historical breeding area around the Cape Verde Islands.

Humpbacks rarely enter the Mediterranean and are considered vagrant there.
Countries occurrence:
France; Greece; Iceland; Italy; Norway; Poland; Russian Federation; Spain; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; United Kingdom
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Arctic Sea; Atlantic – eastern central; Atlantic – northeast; Atlantic – northwest; Atlantic – Antarctic; Atlantic – southwest; Atlantic – western central; Atlantic – southeast; Indian Ocean – eastern; Indian Ocean – Antarctic; Indian Ocean – western; Mediterranean and Black Sea; Pacific – southeast; Pacific – western central; Pacific – Antarctic; Pacific – southwest; Pacific – northwest; Pacific – northeast; Pacific – eastern central
Additional data:
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:The humpback whale is better studied than other balaenopterid species, and migratory destinations are well known for some subpopulations.

North Atlantic
A comprehensive assessment of North Atlantic humpback whales was completed by the IWC Scientific Committee in 2002, from which most of the information below is drawn.

Six distinct feeding aggegrations have been identified: Gulf of Maine; Gulf of St Lawrence; Newfoundland/Labrador; West Greenland; Iceland; North Norway (including Bear Island and Jan Mayen). Genetic and photo-ID data indicate that the six feeding aggregations represent relatively discrete subpopulations, fidelity to which is determined matrilineally. However, because whales from different feeding grounds all mix in a common breeding area in the West Indies, there is male-mediated nuclear gene flow between the subpopulations.

Humpbacks were heavily exploited in the past by pre-modern whaling in their breeding grounds in both the West Indies and the Cape Verde islands, and by modern whaling in their feeding grounds, especially off Iceland and off Norway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Catches of pre-modern whaling are estimated primarily from trade records. Catches of early modern whaling also need to be estimated, because most of the catch records were not divided by species.

An estimated 3,200 were taken from Iceland and 2,000 from northern Norway during 1880-1916. About 1,500 humpback whales are reported killed in the North Atlantic since 1916, from a variety of areas including the British Isles, Faeroes, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and eastern Canada, as well as Norwegian pelagic catches.

Population modelling exercises show that the recent abundance and increase rate of humpback whales in the North Atlantic are too large to represent a recovery from depletion by the estimated past kills. This suggests that either:
(i) past kills have been substantially underestimated; or
(ii) there has been some increase in the environmental carrying capacity for humpback whales; or
(iii) whaling had a negative impact on the population, over and above the effects of the actual removals, in ways that are not understood; or
(iv) some combination of the above factors.

Whichever of the above hypotheses pertains, the increase rate of 3% per annum implies that humpbacks are considerably more abundant in the North Atlantic today than they were in 1940. This is consistent with anecdotal evidence of the relatively low numbers observed prior to 1960.

Generation time
Taylor et al. (2007) estimate mean generation time at 22 years.
Current Population Trend:Increasing
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:With a few exceptions, such as the Arabian Sea population, humpback whales undertake long migrations between breeding grounds in tropical coastal waters in winter to feeding grounds in middle and high latitudes, mainly in continental shelf waters.

In the Southern Hemisphere, humpbacks appear to feed mainly in the Antarctic, where the diet consists almost exclusively of krill (Euphausia superba), although some feeding in the Benguela Current ecosystem on the migration route west of South Africa has been observed (suspected prey species are E. lucens and Themisto jaudichaudi).

Limited data on diet in other areas is available. Humpback whales caught off Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1950s and 1960s were found to be consuming mainly capelin (Mallotus villotus). Those caught off California in the early 20th century were eating mainly euphausiids and sardines. In areas of Alaska and the North Atlantic, humpback whales have also been observed feeding co-operatively on schools of herring (Clupea harengus), sand lance (Ammodytes spp.) and (more rarely) mackerel (Scomber scombrus), by herding the school together with bubble nets, clouds or curtains.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Although commercial whaling seriously depleted all humpback populations, the species has demonstrated remarkable resilience, and most populations have increased since the end of whaling, although there are several populations which remain small and for which no increase has yet been detected, such as the populations breeding near South Pacific islands, and the western North Pacific population. Humpback whales have been protected from commercial whaling worldwide since c.1963, but illegal catches by Soviet fleets continued in the Antarctic and North Pacific until 1973.

Today, small numbers only are taken by a “subsistence” whaling operation off St Vincent (1-2 animals per year); it is possible that other small unreported catches occur elsewhere. However, the government of Japan has announced plans to resume humpback whaling in the Antarctic from the 2007/08 season, starting with an experimental catch of 50 animals per year under scientific permit. The species is not currently hunted in European waters.

Humpback whales are subject to entanglements, often fatal, in fishing gear. They are also vulnerable to injury by ship strikes, which an also be fatal. The documentation of such incidents is best for US waters. For the Atlantic coasts of the US during 1999-2003, there were 19 reports of mortality or serious injury caused by entanglements and 7 cases of mortality or serious injury due to ship strikes. For US Pacific waters (mainly Alaska) during 1999-2001 there were 13 reports of mortalities and serious injuries due to entanglement and three reports of mortalities due to ship strikes.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Humpbacks have been protected from commercial whaling worldwide since 1963, and there have been very few catches after 1967. Despite having been severely depleted to a world population in the low thousands at that time, humpbacks have since recovered strongly to a world population which was at least 60,000 in the mid-1990’s and has been increasing since. Humpback whales enjoy additional protective measures in some countries, such as sanctuaries.

Citation: Species account by IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group; regional assessment by European Mammal Assessment team. 2007. Megaptera novaeangliae. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T13006A3405123. . Downloaded on 24 September 2018.
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