A Study Finds Fin Whales Returning in Antarctic Waters

A Study Finds Fin Whales Returning in Antarctic Waters
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From afar, it looked like a thick fog on the horizon. But as the ship approached, the planet’s second largest creature, 150 fin whales bubbling in the ocean, dived towards the surface of the water.

In six weeks of a nine-week expedition near the coast of Elephant Island in the northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, researchers stumbled upon the largest assemblage of fin whales ever documented.

“It was one of the most amazing observations I’ve ever had,” said Helena Herr, a marine mammal ecologist at the University of Hamburg. “The fin whales seemed to go crazy with the food load they were encountering. It was definitely exciting.”

Dr. Herr and colleagues documented the return of large numbers of fin whales to the waters that once formed their historic feeding grounds. An article published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. The research provides good news about what would otherwise be an alarming sight for global biodiversity and especially for ocean-dwelling species.

people accelerating extinction at an unprecedented rateAccording to assessments made by the United Nations. in the oceans final modeling He estimates that global warming caused by continued greenhouse gas emissions could trigger mass demise of marine species by 2300.

However, the population return of fin whales offers “a sign that the species has a chance to recover if you implement management and conservation,” Dr. said Herr.

For most of the 20th century, the landscape in the waters around Antarctica was markedly different. Between 1904 and 1976, commercial whalers descended on rich feeding grounds and killed an estimated 725,000 fin whales in the Southern Ocean, reducing their populations to 1 percent of their pre-whaling size.

The parties to the International Whaling Commission ultimately Voted to ban whaling in 1982After a decade-long campaign by environmental groups to save the whales, a number of species, including fin, sperm and marine whales, had been hunted to extinction.

But 40 years after the ban on commercial whaling, researchers studying other species in the Southern Ocean are beginning to notice an increasing number of fin whales returning.

In 2013, Dr. Herr et al. They were researching Minke whales at the time and came across large fin whale populations “by chance”. They decided to apply for funding to study the revival of fin whales.

In 2018 and 2019, researchers returned to the Antarctic Peninsula for the first dedicated study of the fin whale population. Through aerial surveys, the researchers recorded groups of 100 fin whales ranging in size from one to four individuals. They also documented eight large groups of 150 whales that came together to feed.

Jarrod Santora, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the first researchers to document increasing fin whale populations while working on krill, said the survey “confirms that this pattern is still ongoing and getting stronger.” (This was not included in the new research.)

Whale researchers have warned that not all whale species have successfully recovered since the whaling ban. Sally Mizroch, a fisheries biologist who has been studying whales since 1979 and was not involved in the study, described the fin whales as “very successful.” Unlike other species such as blue whales, fin whales can hunt long distances and feed on a variety of food sources.

Scientists aren’t sure why some gatherings are so large. Dr. Herr noted that the scenes they witnessed had at least some parallels with historical reports written before widespread commercial whaling. For example, naturalist William Speirs Bruce described seeing the backs of whales and eruptions stretching “from horizon to horizon” on an Antarctic expedition in 1892.

Recent research has suggested that recovery in whale populations, through a concept known as the “whale pump,” is not only good for whales, but for the entire ecosystem as well. Scientists hypothesize that as whales feed on krill, they release iron locked in the crustaceans back into the water. This, in turn, can increase phytoplankton, microscopic organisms that use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis and serve as the foundation of the marine food chain.

While fin whales bring krill to the surface, they can also facilitate the success of other predators, including seabirds and seals, Dr. said Santora. “There’s often much more cooperation and symbiosis than we give to the ecosystem.”

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