For all you folk "on the ball" out there, you may have noticed that June is now behind us and we've moved on to July and technically, we should therefore be moving onto a new species, which we will be doing ... but only once we've closed down this "species blog" and heard from one last humpback researcher out in the field.
June turned out to be quite a month for the humpback whale, and unfortunately not all of it positive. Greenland (or should we say Denmark) were successful in being allowed by the IWC to add humpbacks to their whaling menu, 9 individuals now have targets on their backs! And of course it's not just Greenland who want to take humpbacks, Japan have them on their list although have to date not actually taken any, and some island nations in the Caribbean are also continuing to take humpbacks under the guide of "subsistence whaling".
However to end the "humpback month" on a more positive note, let's hear about humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere from WDCS's Pacific Islands Programme Lead, Dr. Cara Miller - over to you Cara!
It has been estimated that between 1904 and 1980 more than 200,000 humpback whales were commercially whaled in the Southern Hemisphere. Illegal and unreported takes by Russia from shortly after World War II until the late 1970s were estimated to include over 45,000 humpbacks. A majority of these whales were believed to come from the Antarctic foraging grounds which humpback whales from Australia and Oceania utilize during their yearly migration south from their warmer breeding grounds. Given this background, it is not surprising that the Oceania subpopulation of humpback whales has recently been classified as Endangered by the IUCN. This classification was largely based on the small number of individuals present on tropical breeding grounds in comparison to pre-whaling abundance estimates, including comparisons between historical and recent land-based counts conducted in Fiji and other Pacific Islands. In the 1960s some land-points in Fiji saw hundreds of whales swimming past every week during the peak migration period. However, last year only about 20 humpbacks were counted in three full weeks of surveys. Obviously there has been a dramatic decline.
To continue monitoring and study of the Endangered Oceania humpback whale subpopulations WDCS is working in partnership with the Government of Fiji Fisheries Department and WWF with a recently funded grant from the Australian Government. The upcoming 3-year systematic and consistent land-based surveys will provide a valuable index of humpback whale migration through Fijian waters. This project will document important breeding grounds of humpback whales and also assist in unraveling the pattern of population structure of Fijian humpback whales in the context of the Oceania subpopulation. In addition, our findings will aid in understanding the long-lasting impact that Southern Hemisphere whaling has imparted on this population. The major research techniques that we will be using include land-based counts, photo-identification of flukes and collection of song. Furthermore, all cetacean species sighted during these surveys will be documented to increase understanding of cetacean biodiversity in Fijian waters.
Important over-arching components of this project is to support the development and build the capacity of national government staff and researchers, and also to be relatively low-cost and easy to replicate to ensure sustainability over the longer term. Therefore, one of the key activities we’ll be involved in leading up to the surveys will be to provide all volunteers, government staff and other observers with training on cetacean species identification, behaviour, data collection, research methods, and background information on regional cetacean conservation initiatives.
Monitoring of humpbacks also represents an active implementation of the SPREP whale and dolphin action plan as well as the Convention of Migratory Species Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region. In addition, the project will be linked with networks, organizations and departments including other Fiji government departments, local communities, Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, the Fiji cetaceans sightings network, the Fiji tourism sector, major boating clubs, and the University of the South Pacific.