Balaena mysticetus 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Balaenidae

Scientific Name: Balaena mysticetus Linnaeus, 1758
Infra-specific Taxa Assessed:
Regional Assessments:
Common Name(s):
English Bowhead Whale, Bowhead, Greenland Right Whale
French Baleine de Grande Baie, Baleine du Groenland
Spanish Ballena Boreal, Ballena de Groenlandia
Taxonomic Notes: The taxonomy of this species is not in doubt. There are five traditionally recognized geographical International Whaling Commission (IWC) stocks (see below) of which two (Okhotsk Sea and Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen)) have separate Red List assessments as subpopulations. Concerning common names, 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 generally used for the species.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Least Concern 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.
The global population appears to be increasing, due primarily to the increase in the large Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) subpopulation, even though the trends in the remaining populations are unclear. The BCB subpopulation size is well above the Vulnerable threshold for a non-declining population, and current assessments suggest that this stock has recovered to close to its pre-whaling level. The estimate of over 7,000 animals for part of the range of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stocks combined is still provisional, but it is unlikely that the final numbers would be so low that these subpopulations (or the single combined subpopulation) would qualify for a threatened category. Bowhead Whale numbers in eastern Canada and West Greenland are probably still below their pre-whaling levels, although the main reductions occurred before the three-generation time window that would trigger the population reduction (A) criterion. For all these reasons, the species is listed as Least Concern.
Previously published Red List assessments:

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 International Whaling Commission recognises five stocks: Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (US (Alaska), Canada, and Russian Federation); Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin (Canada); Davis Strait-Baffin Bay (Denmark (Greenland) and Canada); Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) (Denmark (Greenland), Norway, and Russian Federation); and the Okhotsk Sea (Russian Federation and Japan) (Rugh et al. 2003).

The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock occurs from Chaunskaya Guba (Russian Federation) in the western Chukchi Sea east to Amundsen Gulf (Canada), and the northern Bering Sea south to Karaginskiy Zaliv (Russian Federation), St. Matthew Island, and Norton Sound (US (Alaska)) (Rice 1998).

Recent evidence of movements of tagged whales indicating overlapping ranges, and inconclusive analyses of genetic differences, have called into doubt the traditional distinction between the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and the Davis Strait-Baffin Bay stocks (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2006, IWC 2007).

The range of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin stock was traditionally taken to include northern Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, Foxe Channel and Foxe Basin. Tracking of satellite-tagged whales in 2002 and 2003 confirm movement from Foxe Basin through Fury and Hecla Strait into the Gulf of Boothia and Prince Regent Inlet (Cosens 2004).

The Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stock is centred in summer in the eastern Canadian High Arctic archipelago and along eastern Baffin Island. The whales move out of the summering areas as ice forms in autumn to wintering areas in polynyas (Holst and Stirling 1999), unconsolidated pack ice, and open water near the ice edge off West Greenland (Reeves and Heide-Jørgensen 1996) and eastern Baffin Island. The summering grounds include Cumberland Sound, the well-studied late summer and autumn feeding ground in Isabella Bay (Finley 1990), Lancaster Sound, Admiralty Inlet, and Eclipse Sound.

Animals satellite-tagged in Cumberland Sound in southeast Baffin Island in 2004 and 2005 moved into Prince Regent Inlet and the Gulf of Boothia and also into Foxe Basin and the Hudson Strait (Dueck et al. 2006). Animals tagged in West Greenland also moved to Prince Regent Inlet and Hudson Strait. There is thus no clear geographical division between the two putative stocks. The genetic evidence is inconclusive, and the IWC Scientific Committee currently regards the stock identity question as open (IWC 2007).

The Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) stock (see separate listing) occurs from the east coast of Greenland across the Greenland Sea, the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea as far as Severnaya Zemlya (Russian Federation), and as far south as the ice front, exceptionally reaching Iceland and the coast of Finnmark (Norway).

The Okhotsk Sea stock (see separate listing) occurs in the Sea of Okhotsk from Shantarskiye Zaliv east to Zaliv Shelikova, Gizhiginskaya Guba and Penzhinskaya Guba (Moore and Reeves 1993, 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:
Canada; Greenland; United States
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Arctic Sea; Atlantic – northwest; Atlantic – northeast; Pacific – northwest; Pacific – northeast
Additional data:
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population:Current Population sizes
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 provisional estimates of 3,633 (1,382–9,550) (Koski et al. 2006) and 7,300 (3,100–16,900) for parts 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 Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) stocks (see separate listings).

Population trends
The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) subpopulation 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 and West Greenland than they did in the 1960s–1970s, and that the geographic distribution of the whales has expanded in recent years (Koski et al. 2006).

No estimates of subpopulation trend are available for the Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) and Okhotsk Sea stocks (see separate listing).

Pre-whaling population sizes
All Bowhead subpopulations were severely depleted by commercial whaling, which had begun in the northeastern Atlantic by 1611 (Ross 1993). Basque whalers took Bowheads in the northwest Atlantic (Labrador in Canada) 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 subpopulation sizes are estimated to have been 24,000 for the Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) stock, 12,000 for the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait subpopulation(s), and 3,000 for the Okhotsk Sea stock (Woodby and Botkin 1993). Brandon and Wade (2004) estimate the initial abundance of the BCB subpopulation at 10–20,000.

The BCB stock may be approaching its pre-whaling levels (IWC 2005). The Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) and Okhotsk Sea stocks are each at a small fraction of their pre-whaling levels (see separate listings), while the status of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait animals relative to pre-whaling levels is unclear.

Demographic parameters
A high longevity (>100 years) is suggested by biochemical methods and the finding of old-fashioned stone harpoon heads in hunter-killed animals (George et al. 1999). If this high longevity is confirmed, it would be among the longest known for a mammal.

For the BCB subpopulation, an estimated 44% (SE 1%) of the total population consists of reproductively mature animals, given that the age at maturity is at least 20 years (Koksi et al. 2004). The calving interval is 3–4 years (Rugh et al. 1992). No specific data are available for other subpopulations.

Taylor et al. (2007) estimate the generation time for Bowhead Whales to be around 52 years.
Current Population Trend:Increasing
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 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.
Generation Length (years):52
Movement patterns:Full Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: Once the target of commercial harvesting, this species is now subject only to legal, low-level aboriginal whaling.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): Heavy commercial hunting, beginning in the 1500s, depleted all populations of Bowheads. The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (BCB) stock has recovered substantially since the end of commercial whaling in the early 20th century, while recent provisional estimates of the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stocks also suggest significant recovery. There is no reliable evidence of recovery of the Svalbard-Barents Sea (Spitsbergen) and Okhotsk Sea stocks.

Limited aboriginal subsistence whaling on the BCB stock (by native peoples of Alaska, and the Russian Federation (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 aboriginal hunters are allowed in Canadian waters. So far these have been too few to impede recovery of the stocks, but there will be pressure to increase take levels given the recent, higher population estimates in 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 (see Threats section). Aboriginal hunting in Canada is co-managed by the national government and regional bodies created under land-claim agreements. This species has been included in CITES Appendix I since 1975; Canada had a reservation against this listing until 1978. The species is listed in CMS Appendix I.

Classifications [top]

9. Marine Neritic -> 9.1. Marine Neritic - Pelagic
suitability:Suitable  major importance:Yes
10. Marine Oceanic -> 10.1. Marine Oceanic - Epipelagic (0-200m)
suitability:Suitable  major importance:Yes
3. Species management -> 3.1. Species management -> 3.1.1. Harvest management

In-Place Research, Monitoring and Planning
In-Place Land/Water Protection and Management
In-Place Species Management
  Harvest management plan:Yes
In-Place Education
  Included in international legislation:Yes
  Subject to any international management/trade controls:Yes
11. Climate change & severe weather -> 11.1. Habitat shifting & alteration
♦ timing:Future    
→ Stresses
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.1. Ecosystem conversion
  • 1. Ecosystem stresses -> 1.2. Ecosystem degradation
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.2. Species disturbance

4. Transportation & service corridors -> 4.3. Shipping lanes
♦ timing:Ongoing    
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.1. Intentional use: (subsistence/small scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Ongoing ♦ scope:Minority (<50%) ♦ severity:No decline ⇒ Impact score:Low Impact: 4 
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.2. Intentional use: (large scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Past, Unlikely to Return ♦ scope:Whole (>90%) ♦ severity:Very Rapid Declines ⇒ Impact score:Past Impact 
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

5. Biological resource use -> 5.4. Fishing & harvesting aquatic resources -> 5.4.3. Unintentional effects: (subsistence/small scale) [harvest]
♦ timing:Ongoing    
→ Stresses
  • 2. Species Stresses -> 2.1. Species mortality

1. Research -> 1.2. Population size, distribution & trends
1. Research -> 1.5. Threats
3. Monitoring -> 3.1. Population trends

♦  Food - human
 Local : ✓ 

Bibliography [top]

Anonymous. 2005. Arctic Climate Impact Assessment - Scientific Report. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Brandon, J. and Wade, P. R. 2004. Assessment of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock of bowhead whales. Internatioanl Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.

Bratton, G. R., Spainhour, C. B., Flory, W., Reed, M. and Jayko, K. 1993. Presence and potential effects of contaminants. In: J. J. Burns, J. J. Montague and C. J. Cowles (eds), The Bowhead Whale, pp. 701-744. Society for Marine Mammalogy, Lawrence, KA, USA.

Cosens, S. E. 2004. Baffin Bay-Davis Strait and Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin Bowheads: Update on Research 2003/04. International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.

Cosens, S. E., Cleator, H. and Richard, P. 2006. Numbers of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in the eastern Canadian Acrtic, based on aerial surveys in August 2002, 2003 and 2004. International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.

Dueck, L. P., Heide-Jorgensen, M. P., Jensen, M. V. and Postma, L. D. 2006. Update on investigations of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) movements in the eastern Arctic 2003-2005, based on satellite-linked telemetry. International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee Document SC/58/BRG 5.

Finley, K. J. 1990. Isabella Bay, Baffin Island: an important historical and present-day concentration area for the endangered bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) of the eastern Canadian arctic. Arctic 43(2): 137-152.

Finley, K. J. 2000. Natural history and conservation of the Greenland whale, or bowhead whale, in the Northwest Atlantic. Arctic 54: 55-76.

Finley, K. J., Marko, J., Fissel, D. B. and Goodyear, J. D. 1998. The Calanus connection: feeding ecology and habitat of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) within the Baffin marine ecosystem, in relation to climatic oscillations. Symposium on Arctic Seas: Currents of Change.

George, J. C., Bada, J., Zeh, J. E., Scott, L., Brown, S. E., O'hara, T. and Suydam, R. S. 1999. Age and growth estimates of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) via aspartic acid recemization. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77: 571-580.

Heide-Jörgensen, M. P., Laidre, K. L., Jensen, M. V., Dueck, L. and Postma, L. D. 2006. Dissolving stock discreteness with satellite tracking: Bowhead whales in Baffin Bay. Marine Mammal Science 22(1): 34-45.

Holst, M. and Stirling, I. 1999. Sightings of bowhead whales in the North Water polynya, northern Baffin Island, in May-June 1998. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 1: 153-156.

International Whaling Commission. 2005. Report of the subcommittee on bowhead, right and gray whales. Journal of Cetcaean Research and Management 7: 189-209.

International Whaling Commission. 2007. Report of the subcommittee on bowhead, right and gray whales. Journal of Cetcaean Research and Management 9.

IUCN. 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (ver. 2012.2). Available at: (Accessed: 17 October 2012).

Koski, W. R., Heide-Jorgensen, M. P. and Laidre, K. L. 2006. Winter abundance of bowhead whales, Balaena mysticetus, in the Hudson Strait, March 1981. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 8(2): 139-144.

Koski, W. R., Rugh, D. J., Punt, A. E. and Zeh, J. 2004. A new approach to estimating the length-frequency distribution of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead whale population using aerial photogrammetry and a summary of other life-history parameters estimated from photoidentification/photogrammetry data. International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee.

Lowry, L. F., Sheffield, G. and George, J. C. 2004. Bowhead whale feeding in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea, based on stomach contents analyses. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 6(3): 215-224.

Moore, S. E. and Reeves, R. R. 1993. Distribution and movement. In: J. J. Burns, J. J. Montague and C. J. Cowles (eds), The bowhead whale, pp. 313-386. Society for Marine Mammalogy.

Philo, L. M., George, J. C. and Albert, T. F. 1992. Rope entanglement of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus). Marine Mammal Science 8: 306-311.

Philo, L. M., Shotts Jr., E. B. and George, J. C. 1993. Morbidity and mortality. In: J. J. Burns, J. J. Montague and C. J. Cowles (eds), The Bowhead Whale, pp. 275-312. Society for Marine Mammalogy.

Reeves R. R. and Heide-Jørgensen M. P. 1996. Recent status of bowhead whales, Balaena mysticetus, in the wintering grounds off West Greenland. Polar Research 15: 115-25.

Rice, D.W. 1998. Marine Mammals of the World: Systematics and Distribution. Society for Marine Mammalogy, Lawrence, Kansas.

Ross, W. G. 1993. Commercial whaling in the North Atlantic Sector. In: J. J. Burns, J. J. Montague and C. J. Cowles (eds), The Bowhead Whale, pp. 511-561. Society for Marine Mammalogy.

Rugh, D. J., Miller, G. W., Withrow, D. E. and Koski, W. R. 1992. Calving intervals of bowhead whales established through photographic identifications. Journal of Mammalogy 73: 487-490.

Taylor, B.L., Chivers, S.J., Larese, J. and Perrin, W. 2007. Generation Length and Percent Mature Estimates for IUCN Assessments of Cetaceans. Administrative report LJ-07-01 available from Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, 8604 La Jolla Shores Dr., La Jolla, CA 92038, USA.

Taylor, B.L., Chivers, S.J., Larese, J. and Perrin, W.F. 2007. Generation length and percent mature estimates for IUCN assessments of Cetaceans. NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California. Administrative Report LJ-07-01.

Woodby, D. A. and Botkin, D. B. 1993. Stock sizes prior to commercial whaling. In: J. J. Burns, J. J. Montague and C. J. Cowles (eds), The Bowhead Whale, pp. 387-407. Society for Marine Mammalogy.

Zeh, J. E. and Punt, A. E. 2005. Updated 1978-2001 abundance estimates and their correlations for the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort seas stock of bowhead whales. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 7(2): 169-175.

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. In: . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T2467A17879018. . Downloaded on 22 June 2018.
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