Balaena mysticetus (Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) subpopulation) 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Balaenidae

Scientific Name: Balaena mysticetus (Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) subpopulation)
Parent Species:
Common Name(s):
English Bowhead Whale, Greenland Right Whale
French Baleine Du Groenland
Spanish Ballena De Groenlandia
Taxonomic Notes:

Subpopulation of Balaena mysticetus Linnaeus, 1758. See also the global assessment for this species and subpopulation assessment for the Okhotsk Sea stock.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Critically Endangered D ver 3.1
Year Published: 2012
Date Assessed: 2008-07-01
Assessor(s): Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N.
Reviewer(s): Taylor, B.L. & Notarbartolo di Sciara, G.
There is no quantitative estimate of current population size, but the largest sighting in recent decades was of  “about 66 animals” in 1983. Given the tendency of Bowhead Whales to aggregate for concentrated food sources, this sighting could have involved much of the total population. The lack of any calf sightings in recent decades, together with the general paucity of sightings overall (seven sightings totalling 17–20 individuals during a systematic survey in 2006), indicates that CR remains appropriate.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:This subpopulation ranges from the east coast of Greenland (Denmark) across the Greenland Sea, the Barents Sea, and the Kara Sea to Severnaya Zemlya (Russian Federation), and south at least occasionally to northern Iceland and the coast of Finnmark (Norway) and Jan Mayen (Norway) (Rice 1998).

The range map shows where the species may occur based on oceanography. The species has not been recorded for all the states within the hypothetical range as shown on the map. States for which confirmed records of the species exist are included in the list of native range states. States within the hypothetical range but for which no confirmed records exist are included in the Presence Uncertain list.
Countries occurrence:
Greenland; Svalbard and Jan Mayen
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Atlantic – northeast
Additional data:
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:Pre-whaling subpopulation size
This subpopulation was originally by far the most abundant of the Bowhead Whale subpopulations, but was heavily depleted by pre-modern commercial whaling from 1611 to the last recorded capture in 1911 (Ross 1993). The only record of catches by modern whaling refers to four taken by modern whaling near Svalbard in 1932 (Ruud 1937). Based on the catch record, a minimum initial subpopulation size was estimated by Woodby and Botkin (1993) at 24,000 whales. A modelling exercise (Allen and Keay 2006) resulted in an estimate of 52,000 but this may be too high given it assumed a net reproductive rate considerably lower than that currently observed in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas subpopulation (see the global assessment for this species).
Current subpopulation size
There is no quantitative estimate of current subpopulation size, but the available evidence suggests that it is small. Jonsgård (1982) reported no live sightings on surveys between Greenland and Svalbard and around Svalbard in 1980, but one dead probable Bowhead. Based on post-war sightings of only seven individuals in Norwegian and adjacent waters up to 1990, Christensen et al. (1992) suggested that the subpopulation numbered “in the tens”. However, the Norwegian record may have given a somewhat exaggerated impression of rarity, due to lack of coverage within the pack ice.

Moore and Reeves (1993) list 37 sightings between 1940 and 1990, mainly near Svalbard and Franz Josef Land (Russian Federation). The records include two sightings (Belikov et al. 1989) of apparently quite large winter aggregations near Franz Josef Land in 1981 (“several tens of individuals”) and 1983 (“about 66 animals”). Gilg and Born (2005) list 23 definite and probable sightings off East Greenland during 1940–2004, including a probable sighting of ten individuals in 2003. Seven sightings totalling about 20 individuals were reported in the Greenland Sea in April 2006 (Wiig et al. 2007). While the number of sightings records has increased over time this may reflect increased effort rather than increasing abundance. Among the recently reported observations, no calves or small individuals have been reported. The proportion of the subpopulation that comprises mature animals is unknown. A value of 44% has been estimated for the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock.
Anecdotal evidence from historical whaling accounts suggests the possibility of whales from a stock to the east, possibly the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock, entering into these waters at times (Shelden et al. 1995), which would complicate the interpretation of the sightings data with respect to the size of the remnant Svalbard stock. Whether the current subpopulation is a remnant of the original Svalbard stock, a recolonization, or a mixture of both, is currently unclear, but ongoing analyses of DNA from old bones might throw light on this question (Borge et al. 2005).
Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:The seasonal distribution is strongly influenced by pack ice (Moore and Reeves 1993). During the winter Bowhead Whales 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.
Movement patterns:Full Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: This subpopulation is not hunted.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): This subpopulation is not hunted. Incidental mortality or serious injury from entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes has not been reported. There are no known specific threats to this subpopulation. For a discussion of general threats see the global assessment for this species.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The International Whaling Commission has protected Bowhead Whales from commercial whaling since its inception in 1946 and there is no aboriginal subsistence whaling exemption for Spitsbergen Bowhead Whales. No specific mechanisms are currently in place to protect Bowhead habitat or to prevent incidental mortality in fishing gear. More general measures taken for environmental protection of the waters off northeast Greenland, Svalbard and Franz Joseph Land may have some beneficial effects on the habitat of Bowheads. The species is listed in CITES Appendix I and CMS Appendix I.

Citation: Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N. 2012. Balaena mysticetus (Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) subpopulation). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T2472A17879836. . Downloaded on 23 June 2018.
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