Balaena mysticetus 

Scope: Europe
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Balaenidae

Scientific Name: Balaena mysticetus Linnaeus, 1758
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English Bowhead Whale, Greenland Right Whale
French Baleine du Groenland
Spanish Ballena de Groenlandia
Taxonomic Notes: The taxonomy is not in doubt. There are five traditionally recognised geographical populations. The species was once commonly known in the North Atlantic and adjacent Arctic as the Greenland right whale. However, the common name bowhead whale is now used almost exclusively for the species.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Not Applicable (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
This species is assessed as Not Applicable as it is of marginal occurrence in the European Mammal Assessment region.

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Bowhead whales are found only in Arctic and subarctic regions. They spend much of their lives in and near the pack ice, migrating to the high arctic in summer, and retreating southward in winter with the advancing ice edge (Moore and Reeves 1993). The IWC recognises five stocks: Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea; Hudson Bay-Fox Basin; Davis Strait-Baffin Bay; Spitsbergen; and the Okhotsk Sea (Rugh et al. 2003). The Spitsbergen stock extends from the east coast of Greenland across the Greenland Sea, the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea as far as Severnaya Zemlya, and going as far south as the ice front, exceptionally reaching Iceland and the coast of Finnmark (Norway).
Countries occurrence:
Iceland; Norway; Russian Federation; Svalbard and Jan Mayen
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Arctic Sea; Atlantic – northeast; Atlantic – northwest; Pacific – northwest; Pacific – northeast
Additional data:
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:Current population size
The range-wide abundance is not known with precision but numbers over 10,000 individuals, with 10,500 (8,200-13,500) (in 2001) in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (Zeh and Punt 2005), and a provisional estimate of 7,300 (3,100-16,900) for a part of the range of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stocks (Cosens et al. 2006). There are no reliable abundance estimates for the small Okhotsk Sea and Spitsbergen stocks.

Population trends
The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) population has been monitored for more than 30 years and has been increasing over this period at an estimated rate of 3.4% (1.7%-5%) per year in the presence of subsistence hunting (Zeh and Punt 2005). No quantitative estimates of trends in the other bowhead populations are available, but Inuit hunters and elders report that they are observing more bowheads in the eastern Canadian Arctic than they did in the 1960s-1970s, and that the geographic distribution of the whales has expanded in recent years. No estimates of population trend are available for the Svalbard-Barents Sea and Okhotsk Sea stocks.

Pre-whaling population sizes
All bowhead populations were severely depleted by commercial whaling, which was established in the north-eastern Atlantic by 1611 (Ross 1993). Basque whalers took bowheads in the north-west Atlantic (Labrador) in the 16th century, but ambiguities over the species identity of whales taken in early commercial whaling make pre-1600 catch records difficult to interpret. Minimum pre-whaling stock sizes are estimated to have been 24,000 for the Svalbard-Barents Sea stock, 12,000 for the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stocks, and 3,000 for the Okhotsk Sea stock (Woodby and Botkin 1993). The Spitsbergen and Okhotsk Sea stocks are at a small fraction of their pre-whaling levels.

Demographic parameters
A high longevity (>100 years) is suggested by biochemical methods and the finding of old-fashioned stone harpoon heads in harvested animals (George et al. 1999). If this high longevity is confirmed, it would be among the longest known for a mammal.
Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:The seasonal distribution is strongly influenced by pack ice (Moore and Reeves 1993). During the winter they occur in areas near the ice edge, in polynyas, and in areas of unconsolidated pack ice. During the spring these whales use leads and cracks in the ice to penetrate areas that were inaccessible during the winter due to heavy ice coverage. During the summer and autumn they concentrate in areas where zooplankton production is high or where large-scale biophysical processes create local concentrations of calanoid copepods (Finley 1990, Finley et al. 1998).

Small to medium-sized crustaceans, especially krill and copepods, form the bulk of the bowhead's diet (Lowry et al. 2004). They also feed on mysids and gammarid amphipods, and the diet includes at least 60 species. Bowheads skim feed at the surface and feed in the water column. It has recently been suggested that they also feed near the bottom, but probably do not directly ingest sediments as gray whales routinely do. During surface skim feeding, coordinated group patterns have been observed, including whales feeding in echelon (V-shaped) formation.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Heavy commercial hunting, beginning in the 1500s, depleted all populations of bowheads. The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Sea stock has recovered substantially since the end of commercial hunting in the early 20th century to around 10,000 animals, while recent provisional estimates of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stocks suggest that a significant recovery has probably occurred. There is no reliable evidence of recovery of the Svalbard-Barents Sea and Okhotsk Sea stocks.

Limited aboriginal subsistence whaling on the BCB stock (by native peoples of Alaska and Chukotka) is permitted by the IWC on the basis of advice from its Scientific Committee (most recently under its new aboriginal subsistence whaling management procedure). These takes have not impeded the recovery of the stock. Very small takes by indigenous hunters are allowed in Canadian waters, so far too few to seriously impede recovery of the stocks, but there will be pressure to increase these takes given the recent, higher population estimates for the eastern Canadian Arctic.

There has been concern since the 1970s that disturbance from oil and gas exploration and extraction activities in the Arctic region might affect bowhead whales. There is also evidence of incidental mortality and serious injury caused by entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes (Philo et al. 1992, 1993; Finley 2000). Environmental threats, such as pollution (Bratton et al. 1993), and disturbance from tourist traffic (Finley 2000) may affect bowhead whales but the impacts have not yet been well characterized or quantified.

During this century, a profound reduction in the extent of sea ice in the Arctic is expected, and possibly a complete disappearance in summer, as mean Arctic temperatures rise faster than the global average (Anonymous 2005). The implications of this for bowhead whales are unclear but warrant monitoring.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The International Whaling Commission has protected bowhead whales from commercial whaling since its inception in 1946. All range states except Canada are members of the IWC. Limited aboriginal subsistence whaling is allowed by the IWC on bowhead whales from the BCB stock on the basis of scientific advice. Indigenous hunting in Canada is co-managed by the national government and regional bodies created under land-claim agreements.

Citation: Species account by IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group; regional assessment by European Mammal Assessment team. 2007. Balaena mysticetus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T2467A9442304. . Downloaded on 21 July 2018.
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