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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
Blue whales show gradual growth
Kirby, BBC
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Berlin

Blue whales, one of the most endangered species on Earth, appear to have begun a very gradual increase in numbers.

Blue whales on surface   Noaa
North and South: Blues whales are increasing their numbers (Noaa)
Scientists say the Antarctic population could be three times bigger than it was 25 years ago.

There are also reports of some increases in northern hemisphere blue whales. But so few animals survived the harpoons that any recovery will be a very slow process.

The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is the great iconic whale species; it is the largest mammal, possibly the largest animal, to ever inhabit the Earth.

The news of its gradual retreat from the brink comes from the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which is holding its annual meeting here.

Significant figures

It suggests the number of Antarctic blue whales may have risen from about 500 animals a quarter of a century ago to around 1,500 now.

In studiedly unexcited prose, its report says: "The committee agreed that there was evidence for an increase in blue whales in some areas of the Antarctic.

"But without sufficient time to explore issues of potential bias that were raised, it was not possible to accept specific estimates of abundance and trends at this time."

BBC News Online guide to the key species in the whale-hunting debate

Dr Justin Cooke is attending the meeting as a representative of IUCN-The World Conservation Union. He told BBC News Online: "There've been three surveys of the Antarctic since the late 1970s.

"The first team saw about five blue whales a year, but the latest saw around 15.

"It is a statistically significant signal. People have suspected the whales were increasing for some time, but this is the first year the scientific committee has thought the growth is above the borderline of detectability.

"There are still some doubts, though. It's only recently that good observational criteria have been developed for distinguishing blue whales from the closely-related pygmy blues.

"So there is a slight question mark over the identity of the animals that have been seen - it could be the pygmies simply moving into an area vacated by the true blues."

Whale song

The pygmies seldom penetrate further south than 55 or 60 degrees, while the true blues feed around the edge of the pack ice.

Dr Cooke said the apparent growth in numbers should be seen in the context of historic population levels.

In 1929-30, the whalers' most successful season, they managed to kill 30,000 Antarctic blue whales.

Demo, AP
The IWC meeting has attracted several demonstrations
The committee says there are suggestions that blue whales may have fallen to less than 3% of their level in the 1920s by the time they were given protection in the mid-1960s.

Scientific committee sources have told BBC News Online of signs that some northern hemisphere blue whale populations are also showing signs of growth.

They say there is evidence of more blue whales around Iceland and in the Gulf of St Lawrence, off Canada's east coast.

Estimates of total numbers north of the Equator are very difficult to establish.

The committee wants more non-lethal research done to improve ways of distinguishing between very similar sub-species of whale, and says analysis of their calls and songs may be a reliable species indicator.




SEE ALSO:
Greater protection for whales agreed
16 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Japan threatens whaling walkout
16 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Norway 'undermining' whaling ban
13 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Nets 'kill 800 cetaceans a day'
13 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Battle joined over world's whales
11 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Extinction nears for whales and dolphins
14 May 03  |  Science/Nature


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