NEWPORT, Ore. – A team of scientists from Russia and the United States has successfully tagged and is tracking by satellite a whale from one of the world’s most endangered populations – a western gray whale off the coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island.
There are only about 130 western gray whales left, scientists say, and only about 30-35 of them are mature, reproductively active females. The project is important because although the whales’ feeding grounds in the Russian Far East are known, details of their migration routes and breeding grounds are not.
This is the first time an individual whale from a critically endangered species has been tagged and tracked using telemetry, according to Greg Donovan, head of science for the International Whaling Commission (IWC) based in Cambridge, U.K., which is coordinating the project.
“Tremendous care was taken to select a healthy adult male,” Donovan said. “Although the risks associated with such tagging are minimal, we wanted to take absolutely no chances with females or young animals. The information we expect to get from this study is vital to international conservation efforts to preserve this population, as is the collaboration between governments, international organizations, international scientists, industry and other stakeholders.”
The tagged whale, known as “Flex,” has been seen regularly in the Sakhalin area in summer since it was photographed as a calf in 1997. The team has been following its movements via satellite with data beamed from the transmitting tag.
The tagging component was led by Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and a pioneer in the use of satellites to track whales since the late 1970s.
“Not a lot is known about western gray whales, so finding out where they migrate to breed and calve will be a tremendous step forward,” said Mate, whose 37-year OSU career has taken him around the world to study threatened and endangered whales.
The scientific expedition was led by Vladimir Vertyankin, of the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evoluation of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who has more than 35 years of experience with marine mammal research in the region. Other team members include Grigory Tsidulko of the Severtsov Institute and Amanda Bradford from the University of Washington, both of whom have studied western gray whales for years.
The telemetry program was developed in conjunction with an international team of experts from the International Whaling Commission and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and carried out under a permit granted to the Severtsov Institute.
Vyatcheslav Rozhnov, deputy director of the Severtsov Institute, who advances satellite telemetry in Russian, concurred. “Finding the migration routes and winter grounds of this critically endangered population will allow range states to develop or improve effective measures to protect the whales,” Rozhnov said.
The field team embarked on its expedition in late August to the remote Sakhalin Island region to locate and tag whales. Logistical challenges and bad weather conspired to thwart their efforts, even though some 25 males were sighted and approached. Finally, on the last day of the expedition, the team managed to tag “Flex,” whose movements have since been tracked via satellite on a daily basis.
“The conditions were particularly difficult because of the weather,” said Valentin Ilyashenko, of the A.N. Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, who is the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission. “The team had to cope with the remnants of two typhoons and several smaller storms. But the perseverance of the entire group and the international collaboration – especially between U.S. and Russian scientists in the field – has really paid off.
“We should learn new things about these endangered whales that will help national and international efforts to better protect these whales,” Ilyashenko added.
The western North Pacific population of gray whales was greatly reduced by whaling in previous centuries and the whales were feared to be extinct in the mid-1970s. But a population was rediscovered off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored since the mid-1990s.
Mate and his colleagues say there is evidence of a “fragile recovery.” Individual animals can be recognized and identified by sex through photographs and genetic information. However, Sakhalin Island also is the site of major offshore oil and gas activities and efforts are under way to minimize the impacts of industrial development on the whales, which also face threats from accidental entanglement in fishing gear and by heavy ship traffic.
Project team members are hopeful that the transmitter will continue tracking “Flex” for up to a year.
“What we really hope to discover is where these whales migrate to breed and calve,” pointed out Finn Larsen, program officer for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “It would be nice to have a full year of data, but it is these first 3-4 months that are probably the most critical.”
The project represents a major international collaboration between the International Whaling Commission, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.
Funding for the expedition was provided by Exxon Neftegas Ltd. (ENL) and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company, which have sponsored a western gray whale monitoring program off Sakhalin Island since 1997.