NEWPORT, Ore. – The Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University will begin studies in 2008 in both the southern and northern hemispheres on a variety of whale species to improve information on their habitats and stock identity, which could eliminate the need for killing whales solely for gathering research data.
Funding for the project, which will use high-tech, non-lethal methods, will be provided primarily through grants from Terri Irwin, wife of internationally recognized wildlife advocate Steve Irwin (the “Crocodile Hunter”).
Japan has been a focal point in recent years for harvesting whales for scientific purposes – a practice that has put the country at odds with many in the scientific community and the public at-large. The Japanese whaling fleet had planned to kill up to 50 endangered humpback whales this year, but in the wake of international protests, officials there announced they would suspend their harvest of humpback whales, but will continue with plans to kill 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales.
Both humpback and fin whales are listed on the Endangered Species List in the United States, and considered “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Redbook.
“Very few people in the scientific community believe that the best way to study these amazing animals is to kill them,” said Bruce Mate, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute and an internationally recognized expert in whale migration and behavior.
Terri Irwin, who announced the research plans in an interview with Australian journalists, has been a vocal opponent of Japan’s harvesting of whales for scientific data. “We can actually learn everything the Japanese are learning with lethal research by using non-lethal research,” she said.
Mate said the new project will identify migration routes, critical habitats and ranges of the whales – factors that ultimately will improve population estimates and help resource managers identify stocks.
“Marine mammal researchers worldwide have not agreed on population estimates for most southern hemisphere whale populations,” Mate said. “We hope that the data we collect will determine for the first time which whale stocks were most affected by historic whaling at specific sites – and allow us to estimate where we are in the recovery of those specific depleted populations.”
A side benefit of the research, Mate added, will be the identification of “hot spots” of whale feeding and breeding activities that could be better protected against inadvertent impacts from human activities.
Much of the OSU research will involve the use of satellite-monitored radio tagging, pioneered by Mate, to track migration, feeding, breeding and calving activities. Another integral component of the research will focus on whale genetics and hormone data, collected in a non-lethal manner, which will identify specific population stocks. Scott Baker, associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, will conduct those studies.
The contributions by the Irwin family from Australia Zoo and Wildlife Warriors Worldwide will fund research at the OSU Marine Mammal Institute for several years, Mate said. Though details are still being developed, research will be conducted annually in both the southern and northern hemispheres, focusing on species depleted due to whaling.
“I have confidence that the research we are sponsoring will demonstrate how advanced technology can replace harvest-based data,” said Terri Irwin.
More information on OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute is available online at: http://mmi.oregonstate.edu.html.