Bowhead whale populations have rebounded after near extinction

We shared a story in November about the remarkable return of Antarctic Blue Whales in the waters around South Georgia after a decades-long hiatus. In more good news for whales, marine scientists are reporting that bowhead whale populations have rebounded to near pre-commercial whaling numbers in US waters.

Bowhead whales are the only baleen whales that live year-round in the Arctic and were once on the brink of extinction after commercial whalers started hunting them near Alaska in the 1700s for their oil, blubber, and baleen. So, how was it possible for bowhead whale populations to rebound?

While the end of commercial whaling obviously played a big role, retired biologist J Craig George credits the sustainable management of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), who have fought against offshore oil drilling and other activities that could harm the species. “No one has fought harder than the AEWC to protect bowhead habitat from industrial development in the US Arctic,” said George, who worked for the North Slope borough department of wildlife management.

Bowhead whales are highly specialized for their Arctic environment. There is a pronounced bump on the front of their heads that are used to break the ice, and the blubber on their body is more than a foot and a half thick. Since they are so adapted to the Arctic environment, the rapid increase of the bowhead whale population has come as a surprise to biologists, who had expected the cold-adapted whale to suffer from melting sea ice. Instead, these whales have proven themselves remarkably resilient and even benefitting in some ways.

As the Guardian reports, a decrease in ice and an increase in nutrients flowing north from the Bering Sea have led to an increase in bowhead whale foods like krill and copepods in northern latitudes. This has led to fatter whales and more baby bowheads in the waters surrounding Alaska.

It is unsure whether these changes will remain advantageous as the Arctic continues to transform, but for now, it’s great knowing that bowhead populations have rebounded after the species was nearly hunted to extinction by the turn of the 20th century.

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