numbered in hundreds of thousands
BY KENNETH R. WEISS
Before they were
harpooned, sliced up and boiled for lamp oil, whales were far more plentiful in
the North Atlantic than previously thought, according to new genetic analysis
that could thwart any attempt to resume commercial whaling for a half-century
For years, scientists have worked to determine
what the population of whales was before the onslaught of commercial whaling.
The population figures matter because a ban on commercial whaling that began in
1986 will remain in effect until whale populations rebound to more than half of
those pre-hunting levels.
Despite being as big as a bus,
whales are difficult to count. They are scattered over wide areas of all the
oceans. They swim great distances to feed and breed, and are hard to track as
they dive below the water's surface.
Until now, the best
evidence for calculating historic whale populations came from painstaking
efforts to sift through the logbooks of old whaling ships.
The new study, published in Friday's issue of the journal
Science, is the first time scientists have applied sophisticated genetic tools
to determine how many whales once roamed the oceans.
Looking at telltale genetic variations that increase with
population size, Stanford geneticist Stephen R. Palumbi and his former graduate
student Joe Roman at Harvard determined that 240,000 humpback, 360,000 fin and
265,000 minke whales roamed the North Atlantic.
contrast, there are now about 10,000 humpback, 56,000 fin and 149,000 minke
whales in the North Atlantic, researchers said.
estimates from the genetic study are much higher than those derived from the
logbooks. That already has stirred a debate among scientists affiliated with
the International Whaling Commission, which tries to manage whaling. The
commission's regulations are based on the lower estimates of historic
populations derived by the logbook method.
commission's rules, the current "pause" on commercial whaling would remain in
effect until certain types of whales reach 54 percent of their pre-exploited
"Everyone knows that whales have been
decimated, and there's an attempt to bring their populations back," Mr.
Palumbi. "The question is, `Bring them back to what?'"
"If you believe the logbook numbers, then the populations
of some whales will be up to exploitable levels before the next presidential
election," he said. "If these genetic numbers are correct, we are far from
succeeding at bringing them back close to the status of what they were in the
past. It will take another 50 or 100 years of protection."
Mr. Palumbi's study is the latest in a series of
scientific reports that indicate marine life was far more abundant before
widespread human hunting than realized by present-day scientists.
"We're were surprised at the genetic diversity," Mr.
Roman said. The variations in genetic sequences, he said, were far too high to
be supported the pre-whaling population estimates based on ship logs.
"Whaling logbooks provide clues, but may be incomplete,
intentionally underreported, or fail to consider whales that were struck and
lost," Mr. Roman and Mr. Palumbi wrote.