Monday, June 29, 2009

Overpassing the Polar Circle, studying endangered whales' species

From Petrozavodsk, June 24th 2009.

Swimming in Barents and White Seas during Second World War, the blue whale has seen approaching Russian, Finnish, but also German ships helping Finnish taking back territories they had lost against Russia earlier in the war.

Murmansk for example was extensively destroyed by bombs and has recovered strong influence under the next quinquenal plans to develop Russian industrial power.

Murmansk end June: 5 degrees and rain

The bay of Murmansk, important interface between sea and railway, mainly used for coal transport

Petrozavodsk remains the dynamic capitale of the republic of Carelia, very much in touch with neighbour Finland and enjoying the presence of close by UNESCO site Kiji.

The cause of blue whale's population reduction (commercial whaling) is reversible, understood, and is not currently in operation. For this reason, the species is assessed as endangered. The total population has been depleted by at least 70%, and possibly as much as 90%, over the last three generations, assuming a 31-year average generation time.

The blue whale is a cosmopolitan species, found in all oceans except the Arctic, but absent from some regional seas such as the Mediterranean, Okhotsk and Bering seas.

Habitat and ecology
Blue whales feed almost exclusively on euphausiids (krill), both at the surface and also at depth, following the diurnal vertical migrations of their prey to at least 100 m (Sears 2002).

The migration patterns of blue whales are not well understood, but appear to be highly diverse. Some populations appear to be resident year-round in habitats of year-round high productivity, while others undertake long migrations to high-latitude feeding grounds, but the extent of migrations and the components of the populations that undertake them are poorly known.

Major threats
The main threat in the past was direct exploitation, which only became possible in the modern era using deck-mounted harpoon cannons. Blue whale hunting started in the North Atlantic in 1868 and spread to other regions around 1900 after the northeastern Atlantic populations had been severely reduced. The Antarctic and North Atlantic populations were probably depleted to the low hundreds by the time whaling ceased, but are increasing (see above). Blue whales have been protected worldwide since 1966, although they continued to be caught illegally by former USSR fleets until 1972. The last recorded deliberate catches were off Spain in 1978 (IWC 2006).

Blue whales are subject to some ship strikes and entanglements (NMFS 1998) but reported cases are few. The remote distribution of some blue whale populations probably makes them less vulnerable to human impacts than some other cetacean species, but local populations that inhabit waters with significant levels of human activity may be subject to some threat, such as disturbance from vessel traffic, including ship noise (e.g. Gulf of St Lawrence population, NMFS 1998). Globally, there appear to be no major threats to blue whales at present.

During this century, a profound reduction in the extent of sea ice in the Antarctic is expected, and possibly a complete disappearance in summer, as mean Antarctic temperatures rise faster than the global average (Turner et al. 2006). The implications of this for blue whales are unclear but warrant monitoring.

Conservation actions
The IWC had granted protection to blue whales by 1966. 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. No blue whales have been recorded deliberately caught since 1978. The species is on Appendix I of both CITES and CMS.

Local measures may be required to protect the habitat of specific local populations in order to ensure their long-term viability in the face of increasing human impacts, e.g. see Hucke-Gaete et al. 2005.

Showing the importance of whales species protection, WWF Russia has recently achieved major projects on grey whales, all run in the waters around Sakhalin islands where activity of oil-and-gas companies is increasing:
1. Tracking project in summer 2004,
2. Field conservation projects in 2006 and 2007.

The first project is interesting to understand the techniques used for tracking whales. You can find more info under

The 2nd series of projects were run independently from those funded by companies who operate Sakhalin gas and oil projects.

In June 2006 WWF team went to Sakhalin to carry out research on distribution and behavior of Gray Whales during construction work for the underwater pipeline. Presence of independent observers rather forced Sakhalin Energy Company to follow really high environmental standards during construction works. Survey results will be also used by WWF to develop the project for designation and establishment of a federal sanctuary in the coastal waters and the lagoons of north-eastern Sakhalin.

Main task of WWF expedition in 2007 was to reveal at the earliest possible stage any potential negative impact on Gray Whales from construction of Sakhalin-2 Piltun-Astokh-B upper platform parts, and to inform the company itself and the state agencies in case any of such impacts are observed. To support these efforts made by WWF for conservation of Gray Whales engineering and technology center Scanex organized in 2007 day by day monitoring for movements of all vessels in the area around Piltun-Astokh-B platform.

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