Balaena mysticetus (East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea 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 (East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea subpopulation)
Parent Species:
Common Name(s):
English Bowhead Whale, Greenland Right Whale
French Baleine Du Groenland
Spanish Ballena De Groenlandia
Balaena mysticetus Linnaeus, 1758 ((Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) subpopulation))
Taxonomic Notes: This is a subpopulation of the Bowhead Whale, Balaena mysticetus Linnaeus, 1758. See also global assessment for this species. This subpopulation was called the Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitzbergen) subpopulation in the previous IUCN Red List assessment (Reilly et al. 2008).

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Endangered D ver 3.1
Year Published: 2018
Date Assessed: 2018-01-01
Assessor(s): Cooke, J. & Reeves, R.
Reviewer(s): Kovacs, K.M. & Lydersen, C.
Facilitator/Compiler(s): Lowry, L.
The available information on abundance of the East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea subpopulation of Bowhead Whales shows that the population size exceeds 50 mature individuals, but there are still probably fewer than 250 mature individuals. Hence, the previous IUCN Red List assessment (Reilly et al. 2008) as Critically Endangered is now changed to Endangered.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea subpopulation of Bowhead Whales ranges from the east coast of Greenland across the Greenland Sea, the Barents Sea, and the Kara Sea to Severnaya Zemlya, and south at least occasionally to northern Iceland and the coast of Finnmark and Jan Mayen (Rice 1998). Recent sightings have been in the Northeast Water polynya off northeast Greenland (Boertmann et al. 2015) and in the waters around the Franz Josef Land archipelago (Gavrilo 2015). Vagrants have been observed as far south as the western British Isles and France (de Boer et al. 2017).
Countries occurrence:
Greenland; Iceland; Norway; Russian Federation; Svalbard and Jan Mayen
France; Ireland; United Kingdom
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Atlantic – northeast
Additional data:
Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):UnknownEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):UnknownExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):Unknown
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]


Moore and Reeves (1993) listed 37 Bowhead Whale sightings in the North Atlantic and Barents Sea between 1940 and 1990, mainly near Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. Gilg and Born (2005) listed 23 definite and probable sightings off East Greenland during 1940–2004, including a probable sighting of ten individuals in 2003. Seven sightings totaling about 20 individuals were reported in the Greenland Sea in April 2006 (Wiig et al. 2007). In an aerial survey directed primarily at Atlantic Walruses (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) in the Northeast Water polynya (northeast Greenland) in August 2009, Boertmann et al. (2015) reported sightings of 9 Bowheads, from which a population estimate of 102 whales (95% confidence interval (CI) 32-329) was derived for the survey area, which covered about 25% of the polynya. Gavrilo (2015) reported a total of 217 Bowhead sightings during scientific and recreational ship cruises near Franz Josef Land during 2010-14, but the number of distinct individuals may be much fewer. A survey of the marginal ice zone and into the sea ice north of Svalbard in August 2015 resulted in an availability-corrected estimate of 343 (CI 136−862) Bowhead Whales (Vacquié-Garcia et al. 2017).

The proportion of mature animals in this subpopulation is unknown, but a value of 44% has been estimated for the Bering – Chukchi – Beaufort Seas subpopulation (Taylor et al. 2007). The population size for the East Greenland – Svalbard – Barents Sea subpopulation is now known to be greater 50 mature animals, but there are still probably fewer than 250 mature individuals.

While the number of sightings records has increased over time, this may at least partly reflect increased effort in these very remote areas, rather than increasing abundance, hence no conclusion about population trend can be drawn. Acoustic evidence of Bowhead Whale vocalizations in the Fram Strait during the winter of 2008-09 led Stafford et al. (2012) to conclude that “there may be more animals in this population than previously believed.” 

This subpopulation was originally the largest of the Bowhead Whale subpopulations, but it 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 is of four whales taken near Svalbard in 1932 (Ruud 1937).

The size of the East Greenland – Svalbard – Barents Sea subpopulation prior to commercial whaling is estimated to have been in the range 33,000-65,000, based on a simple population model (Allen and Keay 2006) using historical catch data from Dutch, German, and British sources compiled by de Jong (1983). The bulk of the catches occurred over 200 years ago, before the three-generation time window required by the Red List population reduction criterion (A). The results of genetic analyses of ancient DNA from Spitsbergen have been inconclusive with regard to the degree of genetic exchange between this subpopulation and others (Borge et al. 2007, Alter et al. 2012). However, the subpopulation has long been regarded (e.g., by the International Whaling Commission (IWC)) as geographically and hence demographically (if not also genetically) distinct, separated from the East Canada – West Greenland subpopulation by the Greenland land mass and the impassable sea ice north of Greenland, and from the Bering – Chukchi – Beaufort Seas subpopulation by the Eurasian sea ice massif. Hence it qualifies for a separate subpopulation listing under the Red List Guidelines. With declining sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean and opening of the Northeast Passage, contact with other Bowhead Whale subpopulations is likely to become more frequent.

Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:
Number of mature individuals:50-250Continuing decline of mature individuals:Unknown
Extreme fluctuations:UnknownPopulation severely fragmented:Unknown

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:

The seasonal distribution of Bowhead Whales is strongly influenced by pack ice (Moore and Reeves 1993). They occur in areas near the ice edge, in polynyas, and in areas of unconsolidated pack ice. 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 2000). The whales in the East Greenland – Svalbard – Barents Sea subpopulation, appear to follow an annual distribution pattern that differs from the usual northward migration in spring and southward migration in autumn. An adult female that was satellite-tagged in early April at 79 ̊54'N latitude moved southwards in June and remained in latitudes between ~70 ̊ and 73 ̊ N until the tag stopped regular transmissions in late July. During the late November and December, the whale was back at around 80 ̊ N (Lydersen et al. 2012). Acoustic recordings of Bowhead Whale calls (including singing, which is thought to be mainly male reproductive display) during 2008-09 in western Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard reached a strong peak in mid-winter (early November to late April) (Stafford et al. 2012). An expedition to the north of Svalbard at 82 ̊ N in January 2012 discovered a large upwelling of nutrient-rich waters -- “conditions similar to those that occurred during the peak of the European whaling period (1690–1790) and … the driving force behind the high primary and secondary production of diatoms and Calanus spp., which sustained the large historical stocks of bowhead whales … in Arctic waters near Spitsbergen" (Falk-Petersen et al. 2014). Ahonen et al. (2017) updated acoustic records for Fram Strait through to the end of the 2013-2014 winter, confirming an on-going strong presence of bowhead singing in the area on an annual basis. An August 2015 survey to the north of Svalbard found Bowheads close to the ice edge in areas with ice concentrations of 50-80% (Vacquié-Garcia et al. 2017).

Small to medium-sized crustaceans, especially krill and copepods, form the bulk of the Bowhead's diet in regions where feeding patterns have been explored (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 also feed in the water column and near the sea floor (Lowry 1993).

There is no subpopulation-specific information, on life history but by analogy with the Bering – Chukchi – Beaufort Seas subpopulation, the generation time is estimated to be 52 years and the proportion mature is estimated to be 44% (Taylor et al. 2007).

Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:Unknown
Generation Length (years):52
Movement patterns:Full Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade:

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s):

The East Greenland – Svalbard – Barents Sea Bowhead Whale subpopulation currently is not subject to hunting. Incidental mortality or serious injury from entanglement in fishing gear or ship strikes has not been reported, but such impacts have occurred with Bering – Chukchi – Beaufort Sea Bowheads (George et al. 2017). The Barents Sea region has lost sea ice at a rate 2-4 times the rate of other Arctic regions in the last few decreases (Laidre et al. 2015). The decline in sea ice to date, and the predicted future decline, represent a profound change to the habitat of this ice-adapted species. The likely short- and long-term effects of this change on the subpopulation are unclear. The reduction in sea ice is expected to result in increases in shipping, oil development and other human activity in the Arctic which may impact Bowhead Whales (Reeves et al. 2014).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Bowhead Whales were protected from commercial whaling under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) since entry into force in 1948, and by its predecessor the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in the 1930s. All range states of this subpopulation are parties to the ICRW. This species has been included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Appendix I since 1975, and is listed in Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals Appendix I. Bowhead Whales are protected by national threatened species legislation in the Russian Federation and are Red-Listed nationally in Norway as Critically Endangered (Henriksen and Hilmo 2015).

Citation: Cooke, J. & Reeves, R. 2018. Balaena mysticetus (East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea subpopulation). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018: e.T2472A50348144. . Downloaded on 23 September 2018.
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