Conservation of the Arabian Sea Humpback Whale

A humpback whale named ‘Chomp’ breaches off the Dhofar coast of Southern Oman. A male, Chomp is a team favourite, having been encountered widely along the coast of Oman for almost 15 years (Darryl MacDonald/ESO)

The humpback whale population in the Arabian Sea (northern Indian Ocean) is the smallest and most endangered humpback whale population in the world. It is threatened by entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, and noise from ship traffic and coastal development. Unlike other humpback whale populations, which travel primarily along predictable migration routes between high-latitude feeding grounds and low-latitude breeding areas, the Arabian Sea population apparently does not migrate but remains within the Arabian Sea year-round. Its range includes the waters of Oman, Iran, Pakistan, India and possibly other countries in the region. In January 2015 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Emirates Wildlife Society in association with WWF, and Wildlife Conservation Society, with major funding support from the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, convened a workshop of regional and international experts to develop a strategy for conservation of these whales.

A whale named ‘Spitfire’ performs for the camera off the island of Hallaniyah in southern Oman (Tobias Friedrich)

The workshop compiled evidence confirming the perception that the Arabian Sea humpback whale population is at a high risk of extinction (e.g. Pomilla et al 2014 and Van Bressem et al 2014). Participants stressed the need for a regionally collaborative research and conservation program, and outlined a process for developing such a program [for details see workshop report]. Steps were taken at and immediately following the workshop to implement the program. It is important to note that any actions taken to improve the protection of humpback whales in the region are likely to also benefit other large whale species, including blue whales and Bryde’s whales.

Three humpback whales were satellite-tagged in Oman in mid-March 2015, as part of a collaborative research project in Oman under the Environment Society of Oman, and their movements can be monitored at [http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/?project_id=1084].

Pomilla, C., Amaral, A.R., Collins, T., Minton, G., Findlay, K., Leslie, M.S., Ponnampalam, L., Baldwin, R., Rosenbaum, H., 2014. The World’s Most Isolated and Distinct Whale Population? Humpback Whales of the Arabian Sea. PLoS ONE 9, e114162.

Van Bressem, M.-F., Minton, G., Collins, T., Willson, A., Baldwin, R., Van Waerebeek, K., 2014. Tattoo-like skin disease in the endangered subpopulation of the Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, in Oman (Cetacea: Balaenopteridae). Zoology in the Middle East 61, 1-8.

 


Young Gray Whale Sighted near Tokyo Islands

In March 2015 a young gray whale visited waters near Kozushima and Niijima, part of Tokyo’s outlying Izu Islands group. The occasional appearance of gray whales, such as this one, in Japan, together with a stranding on the mainland China coast of Taiwan Strait in November 2011, indicate that although some of the whales that feed in summer off Sakhalin Island (Russia) migrate to wintering areas off North America, some gray whales still use other traditional portions of their historical habitat in East Asia (see Weller et al. 2012 at http://www.int-res.com/articles/feature/n018p193.pdf).

Photo Caption: Young gray whale observed near Kozushima, Japan, on 20 March 2015. Photo by Nana Takanawa.


Finally: Announcement from Mexico on Vaquita Conservation

After months of anticipation, on 23 December 2014 the Government of Mexico finally released its official response to the recommendations of the July 2014 meeting of the international vaquita recovery team (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita, CIRVA-5); see details in our News Item from August 2014. This took the form of a Regulatory Impact Statement (MIR de Impacto Moderado in Spanish) issued by the fisheries agency through the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) (click here for the MIR). The MIR, along with a draft Agreement between the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and SAGARPA (to read click here), was open briefly for public comment and is expected to come into force soon.

Key elements of the plan include:

  • A complete ban for two years on the use of gillnets in the exclusion zone proposed by CIRVA.
  • An exemption from the ban for the Gulf corvina fishery during the period 1 February to 30 April. This fishery targets spawning aggregations of a large croaker using a ‘rodeo’ or ‘round-up’ technique that encircles the fish with large-mesh gillnets, actively fished.
  • Compensation to all‎ fishermen and others who work in fishery-related activities (e.g. workers in shrimp packing plants).
  • Creation of community enforcement groups to assist authorities in policing the gillnet ban.

CIRVA has provided comments on these documents, explaining some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Government’s plan (to read the comments in English, click here).

There is no doubt that this announcement represents a step forward. However, as indicated in the 7 December 2014 news item posted on this website, intensive gillnet fishing has continued both inside and outside the Vaquita Refuge, with no evidence of a significant effort to enforce existing regulations. Valuable time has been lost, and there is no way of knowing how much closer this has driven the vaquita toward extinction.



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