Balaenoptera physalus 

Scope: Europe
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Balaenopteridae

Scientific Name: Balaenoptera physalus (Linnaeus, 1758)
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English Fin Whale, Finback
French Rorqual Commun
Spanish Ballena Aleta, Rorcual Común
Taxonomic Notes: The subspecific phylogeny of fin whales has not yet been fully elucidated, but some authors recognize a Northern Hemisphere subspecies B. p. physalus, and a Southern Hemisphere subspecies B. p. quoyi which has a larger body size. Clarke (2004) proposed a pygmy subspecies B. p. patachonica Burmeister 1865, but this is not widely accepted and no genetic analysis has been performed.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Near Threatened (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
European regional assessment: Near Threatened (approaching A1d). The population and range are large enough that Criteria B and D do not apply. Does not meet Criterion C (even at Near Threatened) because although the number of mature individuals is fairly low, there is no evidence of continuing decline. Generally in the North Atlantic populations are either stable or increasing, or there is no quantitative data. There are no estimates of historical or pre-exploitation abundance for the marine area covered by the European Mammal Assessment, but populations were undoubtedly depleted by commercial whaling. It is suspected that, by comparison with population levels 81 years (3 generations) ago, the population is currently 30-49% lower. This is a precautionary assessment that is not based on quantitative data, and it is strongly recommended that further surveys and modelling studies are carried out to better determine current and historic population size and trends.

The Mediterranean population of the fin whale was assessed in 2006 as Data Deficient (Reeves and Notarbartolo di Sciara 2006).

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Fin whales occur worldwide, mainly but not exclusively further offshore. They are rare in the tropics, except in certain cooler-water areas such as off Peru.

North Atlantic
In the North Atlantic, the fin whale's range extends as far as Svalbard in the northeast (but rarely far into the Barents Sea), to the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay in the northwest (but rarely into the inner Canadian Arctic), to the Canary Islands in the southeast, and to the Antilles in the southwest (Rice 1998, Perry et al. 1999), but it is rare in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico (Ward et al. 2001). Their main summer range in the northwest Atlantic extends from Cape Hatteras (39°N) northward (Anon. 2005). In former times, fin whales were caught year-round near the Straits of Gibraltar. While there may be some north-south migration between summer and winter, it does not necessarily involve the entire population, and North Atlantic fin whales may occur to some extent throughout the year in all of their range, as suggested by acoustic data (Clark 1995).

There is a resident population in the central and western Mediterranean which is genetically distinct from that of the North Atlantic (Bérubé et al. 1998). The species also occurs, but rarely, in the eastern Mediterranean (Reeves and Notarbartolo di Sciara 2006).
Countries occurrence:
Belgium; Croatia; Cyprus; Denmark; Faroe Islands; France; Germany; Gibraltar; Greece; Iceland; Ireland; Italy; Malta; Monaco; Netherlands; Norway; Poland; Portugal; Russian Federation; Slovenia; Spain; Svalbard and Jan Mayen; Sweden; Turkey; 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:North Atlantic
North Atlantic fin whales were comprehensively assessed by the IWC Scientific Committee in 1991 (IWC 1992), and an update for the northern part of the region was undertaken in 2006 in a joint workshop with NAMMCO (IWC 2007). North Atlantic fin whale stocks had previously been assessed by the IWC Scientific Committee in 1976 (IWC 1977). Based mainly on past whaling operations, the IWC recognizes seven management areas in the North Atlantic: Nova Scotia; Newfoundland-Labrador; West Greenland; East Greenland-Iceland; North Norway; West Norway-Faeroe Islands; British Isles-Spain-Portugal. Based on genetic evidence, it is now considered more likely that there are from two to four breeding stocks, which utilize these seven management areas in different proportions (IWC 2007).

The best available estimates of recent abundance accepted by the IWC Scientific Committee (IWC 2007) are: 25,800 (CV 0.125) in 2001 for the central North Atlantic (East Greenland-Iceland, Jan Mayen and the Faeroes); 4,100 (CV 0.21) in 1996-2001 for the northeastern North Atlantic (North and West Norway); and 17,355 (CV 0.27) in 1989 for the Spain-Portugal-British Isles area (Buckland et al. 1992). The only accepted estimate for West Greenland is 1,046 (CV 0.35) in 1988 (IWC 1992); a newer estimate from a 2005 survey could not be accepted due to methodological problems. There are no complete estimates for the western North Atlantic Northwest Atlantic, but partial estimates are 1,013 (95% CI 459-2,654) for Newfoundland in 2003-3 (IWC 2007), and 2,814 (CV 0.21) for the east coast of North America from the Gulf of St Lawrence southward (Anon. 2005).

No significant trends were found in the total abundance for any of the above areas, but when the area west and southwest of Iceland was singled out, a significant increasing trend was found (IWC 2007).

Fin whales were heavily exploited in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, starting in 1876, particularly off Norway, Iceland, the Faeroes and British Isles. Whaling then spread to Spain, Greenland and eastern Canada, and exploitation continued at a lower level until the 1980s. Catch statistics for the early years are probably incomplete, and a large number of whales were killed but lost, due to lines breaking, etc., perhaps up to one-half in the first 20-25 years and one-third in the next 15-20 years (Tønnessen 1967). The IWC Scientific Committee added 50% to recorded catches up to 1915 to allow for this (IWC 2007): recorded catches up to 1915 total 15,315 fin whales plus 29,024 unspecified whales of which about half may have been fin whales, thus the total kill may have been about 45,000 up to 1915. The total recorded catch post-1915 has been about 55,000 fin whales. The approximate figures by area are: Canada 12,000; Norway 10,000; Iceland 10,000; Faeroes 5,000; Greenland 1,000; British Isles 3,000; Spain and Portugal 11,000; and pelagic operations 3,000.

The behaviour evident for the various North Atlantic fin whale populations following earlier reductions through whaling differs. It ranges from clear evidence of recovery to no firm indications of any increase. An estimated 14,000 fin whales were killed off North Norway during 1876-1904, and a further 1,500 during 1948-71, but fin whales are rare there now (although quite abundant off western Spitsbergen, where about 1,500 whales had been killed during 1904-11) (Øien 2003, 2004). An estimated 12,000 fin whales were killed off Iceland during 1890-1915, until whaling was suspended partly due to concerns about the reductions in the stocks, but the modern abundance data suggest that the there has been a recovery in the population that may still be continuing, particularly west of Iceland, despite catches during 1948-89 averaging about 220 per year (Branch and Butterworth 2006). An estimated 10,000 fin whales were taken from the Faeroes, but about 25% of these were actually caught off eastern Iceland (IWC 2007). Whaling from the Faeroes and West Norway petered out during the 1960s as whales became scarce (IWC 1977), but catches had apparently been mainly of migrating whales rather than local populations.

Catches of about 7,000 fin whales taken near the Straits of Gibraltar in the 1920s apparently depleted the local abundance, and fin whales are still rare there today, but this did not seem to affect the abundance of fin whales off northern Spain, where catches continued until 1985. The impact of catches on the fin whale stocks in the Northwest Atlantic is unclear (Mitchell 1972). The population was estimated in 1991 from surveys covering much of the western Mediterranean at 3,583 (CV 0.27) (Forcada et al. 1996). It is likely, but not certain, that the historical catches near the Strait of Gibraltar were from the North Atlantic rather than from this population (Sanpera and Aguilar 1992). Palsbøll et al. (2004) found that Mediterranean fin whales probably have a small but non-zero genetic exchange with fin whales elsewhere in the North Atlantic.

Generation time
The default value of 27 years for generation time given in Taylor et al. (2007) was considered appropriate, given an absence of any indications to the contrary from available biological information for the species.
Current Population Trend:Unknown
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:Fin whales are often portrayed in the secondary literature as eating fish including juvenile herring (e.g. NAMMCO undated). However, the available quantitative evidence suggests that the fin whale's reputation as a fish-eater is largely overstated. In Icelandic catches, 96% contained krill only, 2.5% a mixture of krill and fish, and 1.6% fish only (Sigurjónsson and Víkingsson 1997), while only one of 267 fin whales caught in the northeast Pacific off British Columbia, Canada, contained fish (Flinn et al. 2002), and over 99% of stomachs with food in the Antarctic contained krill (Kawamura 1994). On the other hand, Overholtz and Nicolas (1979) report apparent feeding of fin whales on American sand lance (sand eel) Ammodytes americanus in the northwest Atlantic, and Mitchell (1975) found that capelin comprised 80-90% of prey in fin whales caught off Newfoundland. Capelin abundance is extremely variable over time, and fin whales may feed opportunistically on capelin in high-capelin years. In summary, although the fin whale is more flexible in its diet than the blue whale (B. musculus), its consumption of fish is not necessarily a significant problem.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Prior to the advent of modern whaling in the late 19th century, fin whales were largely immune from human predation because they were too hard to catch. Fin whales were depleted worldwide by commercial whaling in the 20th century. Fin whales have been protected in the Southern Hemisphere and North Pacific since 1975, and catches ceased in the North Atlantic by 1990, except for small aboriginal subsistence catches off West Greenland. Commercial catches resumed off Iceland in 2006, with nine fin whales being taken that year. A Japanese fleet resumed experimental catches of fin whales in the Antarctic in 2005, taking 10 whales each during 2005/06 and 2006/07, with plans to take 50 per year from the 2007/08 season (IWC 2006). It seems unlikely that catching of fin whales will return to the high levels of previous years, not least due to the limited market demand for whale products.

Fin whales are one of the more commonly recorded species of large whale in vessel collisions (Laist et al. 2001). Five fatal collisions are recorded off the US east coast during 2000-04 (Cole et al. 2006). Collisions with vessels appear to be a significant, but not necessarily unsustainable, source of mortality for the Mediterranean population (Weinrich et al. 2005, Reeves and Notabartolo di Sciara 2006).

Fin whales are occasionally caught in fishing gear as bycatch: four deaths and serious injuries from this source are reported from the eastern US coast during 2000-04 (Cole et al. 2006); recent Japanese Progress Reports to the IWC ( report about one fin whale by-caught per year on average.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: The IWC set catch limits to zero for fin whales in the North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere in 1976. Catch limits for all commercial whaling have been set at zero by the IWC since 1986. However, this moratorium does not apply to Iceland, Norway or the Russian Federation which have objected to this provision. Limited aboriginal subsistence whaling is permitted by the IWC for fin whales taken off West Greenland. Fin whales are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but this does not apply to Iceland, Norway and Japan, who hold reservations. Fin whales are also listed on Appendices I and II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). Under the Agreement for Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black and Mediterranean Seas (ACCOBAMS), fin whales in the Mediterranean, along with other cetaceans, are protected from deliberate killing by signatories to the agreement.

Citation: Species account by IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group; regional assessment by European Mammal Assessment team. 2007. Balaenoptera physalus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T2478A9448238. . Downloaded on 26 September 2018.
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