Featured Image Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources
By Shelby Hoover
The Gulf Of Alaska is home to 14 species of whales and other cetaceans including the most critically endangered whale in the world.
A recent study by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided new, comprehensive data regarding whale distribution and abundance in the of the Gulf of Alaska.
However, one whale in particular was missing from their surveys. NOAA scientists made no sightings of one of the rarest whales on earth, the North Pacific Right Whale.
North Pacific right whales had been historically abundant in the Gulf of Alaska. However, North Pacific right whales were valued highly for their high fat content making them the “right” whale to hunt and, as a result, were wiped out by commercial hunters. Once abundant, only approximately 30 North Pacific right whales are currently living in the Gulf of Alaska.
Researchers at the NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center are compiling the most comprehensive catalog of the North Pacific right whale in the world. The data dates back to the 1970’s. Many adult whales identified then are still alive today and have been identified by scientists working on the project. Scientist are able to identify whales by white, rough markings on their backs.
Amy Kennedy, a scientist working on the North Pacific right whale catalog, is also a rarity in that she has seen nearly half of the North Pacific right whales in the Gulf of Alaska during her work.
Which is quite remarkable since finding the whales to catalog and tag is very difficult simply because there are so few of them left. The right whales are also believed to be suspicious of boats, possibly a learned behavior during times of commercial whaling. This goes to show how the remaining North Pacific right whales have possibly learned to survive. “The whales that are left are resilient, these are the survivors,” Kennedy says.
Alaska Fisheries Science Center continue to make advances in learning more about the North Pacific right whales. During 2004, 2008 and 2009, scientists satellite tagged six whales to learn more about their movements and habitat. By learning more about their movements, scientists are able to learn more about the critical habitat that these whales need to survive.
Biological samples were also processed. DNA samples show that there are twice as many males as females which is bad news in terms of future reproduction.
“It’s definitely disheartening,” Kennedy said. However, the data, good and bad, provides a lot of information on North Pacific right whales and there is a lot that we can learn in order to protect the North Pacific right whales.
What can you do?
- Support endangered animal research!
- Protect right whales’ habitat!
- Spread the word! Raise awareness and educate those around you!