Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) COSEWIC assessment and status report: chapter 8

Population Sizes and Trends

Technological advances in the late 1800s allowed whalers to kill and secure these fast moving, negatively buoyant, whales (Tonnessen and Johnsen 1982). Stocks were over-exploited and severely reduced in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and indeed throughout the species’ range. No reliable estimates exist of pre-whaling abundance.

At least 13,337 fin whales were taken in Atlantic Canada between 1903 and 1945, the vast majority of which (11,815) were from Newfoundland-Labrador. The Nova Scotia stock was whaled only from 1964 to 1971 (Meredith and Campbell 1988).

Estimates of contemporary population size include the following: Mitchell (1974) estimated that there were 10,800 fin whales off eastern Canada in the early 1970s. CeTAP (1982) estimated that there were around 5,000 between North Carolina and Nova Scotia in the early 1980s. The best available recent estimate for a part of the western North Atlantic is 2,814 (CV=0.21) between Georges Bank and the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, based on surveys in July 1999 (Waring et al. 2002). Surveys in the mid-1990s yielded estimates of 2,200 (CV = 0.24) between Virginia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Waring et al. 2002) and about 380 (uncorrected for visibility bias) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Kingsley and Reeves 1998). In the central North Atlantic (around Iceland and the Faroe Islands) Gunnlaugsson et al. (2002) estimated fin whale abundance at 25,352 (95% CI 19,579 to 32,831) from ship surveys.

A recent genetic analysis suggested that there were once 360,000 fin whales in the North Atlantic (Roman and Palumbi 2003). This estimate is an order of magnitude greater than the most commonly cited value (30,000–50,000) for this ocean. The approach, interpretation, and conclusions of Roman and Palumbi have attracted considerable criticism and comment (i.e., Baker and Clapham 2004, Holt 2004, Mitchell 2004), and there is no scientific consensus for adopting their estimate as a management benchmark.

Pike and MacAskie (1969) regarded the fin whale as the most abundant baleen whale in British Columbia waters. Coastal whaling stations in British Columbia took at least 7,605 fin whales between 1905 and 1967 (Figure 7--Gregr et al. 2000). For the entire North Pacific, Ohsumi and Wada (1974) estimated pre-exploitation abundance at 40,000–45,000, reduced by whaling to an estimated 13,000–19,000 by 1973 (of which 8,500–11,000 were assumed to be in the eastern North Pacific).

Figure 7. Annual number of fin whales delivered to British Columbia coastal whaling stations (from Gregr et al. 2000) during the 1900s. The second peak (1958) reflects a dramatic improvement in the whaling fleet.

 Figure 7. Annual number of fin whales delivered to British Columbia coastal whaling stations (from Gregr et al. 2000)during the 1900s

Carretta et al. (2002) estimated minimum abundance of the California-Oregon-Washington stock at 2,541 individuals. Although slight increases in abundance were observed in the coastal waters of California in the 1980s and 1990s, no significant trend was documented (Carretta et al. 2002). Vessel surveys in July–August 1999 produced an estimate of 4,951 (CV=0.29) fin whales in the Bering Sea (Angliss and Lodge 2003).

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