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Whale census: Bowhead spottings near all-time high

July 16th, 2011 | Jake Neher Print this article   Email this article  

Biologist Craig George has an unusual job.

He counts whales.

It's actually a very complex, dangerous, and important job.

Under an international treaty, the United States is a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and must conduct a census every ten years to keep track of the size and trends of the stock of whales being harvested by hunters.

That's easier said than done. But after 30 years doing it, George seems to have developed a fairly workable process.

It's a three-plus mile snow machine ride out on the sea ice to get to where researchers are busy counting whales.

It took George and his team of 20 about 40 person days to break the trail between their field lab and the observation perches out on the edge of the shore-fast sea ice. It took another week to set up the perches and walking trails. That's all without the aid of heavy machinery, which wouldn't be safe to use out on the sea ice.

The two observation perches are situated on top of pressure ridges in the ice that are as tall as three-story buildings.

When we get there, researchers are twisting their way up and down the giant jumbled hills of ice as they change shifts for the day.

On top of the perch, the view is incredible. Even on a dark and gloomy day.

"We would score this poor visibility because of the snow and the fog and all that," George says, "But you know, the whales probably will come up in these little holes, although it's not entirely certain. It's really easy to miss them. But this is pretty tough, this is actually almost unacceptable."

The holes he's talking about are the few little spots of liquid water to be seen from the perch on this day in late Spring, as bad weather conditions have re-frozen the surface of the water.

That's one of the toughest aspects of the count. Bowheads in this stock are believed to migrate in bunches, or "pulses" as George calls them. At times, researchers see tons and tons of whales swimming past. At other times... they don't see many at all for extended periods. When you look at the data plotted on a chart, you can see the peaks and valleys very clearly.

George says on this day there could be hundreds of whales right in front of us, swimming under that thin layer of new ice, but we wouldn't know it. In fact, in about half an hour of watch, we don't see a single whale.

But days like this are inevitable in the arctic. Flash forward a few weeks, and George's crew is wrapping up operations out on the perches. He says the count was largely a success despite the periods of bad weather.

"This year, we may have the data to adjust for a lot of those things," he says, "And for once, get a really good, accurate, if not precise estimate of how many bowheads are in this stock.

As of May 30th, they had spotted nearly 3,400 bowheads. They also possibly saw up to 630 additional whales, but weren't able to determine if they were duplicate sightings. George says that's very close to the all-time record for whales seen in a year.

That's good news for researchers, the North Slope Borough, and native whalers, because the census actually failed two years in a row in 2009 and 2010. The last successful count was back in 2001.

In addition to the ice-based count out on the perches, they teamed up with the National Marine Fisheries Service to successfully pulled-off an aerial photo survey of the bowhead migration this year. They also placed several audio recording devices in the water to get acoustic data of the migration to help calculate missed whale correction factors.

George says all these things will make for a better confidence-level in the final survey estimates.

"This year we have a really remarkable data set. We've never been able to pull off all these studies at once. So I think we'll have the best estimate to date for the number of whales."

From here researches will have to account for a number of correction factors in the ice-based count and possibly revise their findings after outside scientific review. George says that process will take months or years.

But he says the preliminary results will still be used to help aid in discussions this year and next with the International Whaling Commission.

"It'll help," he says, "and clearly indicate that, from a biological perspective, that all the health indicators are good for this particular herd. There's other concerns, and things aren't perfect, but nonetheless it looks like a pretty healthy stock of whales."

He says the trend over the last 30 years is that the population has continued to increase at about three-and-a-half-percent annually.

He says his hunch is that they've continued to increase, based on this year's initial results, including the high number of calves they've seen from the aerial survey.

Results from past counts also indicate that whale mortality from the subsistence hunt is less than one-percent of the estimated population. That's a figure Alaska whalers will likely use to plead their case for a renewed quota.

George says researchers have learned much of what they know about working, living, and safely operating on the sea ice from the local Eskimo whale hunters. He attributes much of the success of the program to their guidance.

This week's IWC meeting wrapped up in England Thursday.

Jake Neher is the news director at KBRW radio station in Barrow.


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