Fin whales, once considered endangered, have made a surprising comeback

Fin whales are back.

Whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction, have returned in large numbers to their ancestral feeding grounds off the coast of Antarctica, according to research published Thursday.

In the journal Scientific Reports, researchers for the first time shared details of massive feeding frenzies among fin whales near Elephant Island. More than once, they observed around 150 whales, butting and diving with their mouths open, swallowing krill.

The scientists also completed abundance estimates and found a higher concentration of fin whales there than in other regions known for sightings, including off the California coast.

Previous research suggests that only 1% to 2% of fin whales survived commercial whaling, which took off in the southern hemisphere in the early 20th century and continued until restrictions in the 1970s.

Documentation of feeding frenzies in densely populated waters where whales gathered generations ago and before they were hunted on an industrial scale suggests that the species has rediscovered important habitat and that the population is recovering.

An aerial view of an aggregation of Fin Whales (Helena Herr)

The species’ strong return to krill-rich feeding grounds is “raising hope that fin whales are on their way to pre-exploitation numbers,” the researchers wrote in the Scientific Reports article.

Video footage of the “aggregation” of fin whales, as researchers call it, first came to public attention in a 2019 BBC documentary series called “Seven Worlds, One Planet” which was narrated by David Attenborough, the famous British naturalist and broadcaster. The researchers on the Scientific Reports article, collaborating with the documentalists, added new data and additional analyzes of the whales.

“I had never seen so many whales in one place before and was absolutely fascinated to see how these massive groups fed,” study co-author Bettina Meyer, a biologist and professor at the Alfred Wegener Institute, said in a news report. release.

Fin whale feeding off the north coast of Elephant Island, Antarctica (Sacha Viquerat)

Fin whale feeding off the north coast of Elephant Island, Antarctica (Sacha Viquerat)

Fin whales, once considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, became “vulnerable” in 2018. The International Whaling Commission is in charge of setting global catch limits for commercial whaling. .

The quota for fin whales dropped to zero in 1976, the study says. In 1982, the commission decided to stop all commercial whaling. Iceland, Norway and Japan are among the nations that have commercially hunted whales since then.

Scientists and other observers began noticing an increase in sightings of fin whales in the waters between South America and Antarctica in the early 2000s, and had long suspected that the area near Elephant Island was becoming at a hotspot for fin whales.

In the Scientific Reports study, researchers quantified the presence of fin whales using a helicopter aboard an icebreaker ship. Flying allowed the researchers to survey and collect data on the whales from above and determine the density of the creatures.

Fin whale researchers Helena Herr and Sacha Viquerat (Bertie Gregory)

Fin whale researchers Helena Herr and Sacha Viquerat (Bertie Gregory)

Many species of whales pass habits or information about feeding sites from generation to generation. Research suggests that whales pass this information through their mothers.

The location of feeding sites in Antarctica could have been lost to generations of fin whales until now because their populations were so decimated and disconnected by whaling, the study suggests.

“…This could be a good sign that, nearly 50 years after the commercial whaling ban, the population of fin whales in Antarctica is recovering,” Meyer said.

The study says the presence of the whales could have environmental benefits because they recycle nutrients from their waste that benefit the growth of phytoplankton, which form the base of the food web in Antarctic waters.

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