Huge groups of fin whales sign of hope for ocean giants

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A University of Hamburg photo shows fin whales feeding at the northern coast of Elephant Island, in what scientists hailed as a sign of hope for the species.

For the first time since whaling was banned, dozens of southern fin whales have been filmed feasting together in a “thrilling” Antarctic spectacle, hailed by scientists Thursday as a sign of hope for the world’s second largest animal.

The ocean giants are second only to blue whales in length, with slender bodies that help them glide through the water at high speed.

They could not evade industrial whaling, however, and were slaughtered to near-extinction during the 20th Century as hunters systematically shattered populations of whales across the planet.

“They were reduced to one or two percent of their original population size,” said Helena Herr, of the University of Hamburg, lead author of the research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“We’re talking about a couple of thousand animals left for the whole southern hemisphere area.”

While scientists say numbers of southern have been slowly rebounding since a 1976 whaling ban, there have been few sightings of these mysterious animals in large groups at their historic feeding grounds.

But in scenes that Herr described as “one of nature’s greatest events”, researchers and filmmakers were able to capture footage of up to 150 southern fin whales in Antarctica.

Drone footage, shot by wildlife filmmakers from the BBC, shows the fin whales swooping and lunging through the water, blasting great bursts of air as they surface, as birds wheel in the sky above them.

“The water around us was boiling, because the animals were coming up all the time and causing splashes,” Herr told AFP.

“It was thrilling, just standing there and watching it.”

Unofficially, the team nicknamed it the “fin whale party” as the enormous creatures feasted on swirling masses of krill.

While scientists say numbers have been slowly rebounding since a 1976 whaling ban, there had been few sightings of these mysterious animals in large groups at their historic feeding grounds.

In two expeditions in 2018 and 2019, researchers recorded a hundred groups of fin whales, ranging from small gatherings of a few individuals, to eight huge congregations of up to 150 animals.

Previously, recorded feeding groups had a maximum of around a dozen whales.

Using data from their surveys, the authors estimate that there could be almost 8,000 fin whales in the Antarctic area.

‘Ecosystem engineers’

Fin whales can live to around 70 or 80 years old when left alone and have just one calf at a time, so Herr said the recovery of populations is a slow process.

She said increasing numbers of southern fin whales is an encouraging sign that can work, although she noted that other threats include being struck by boats.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature now lists fin whales as “vulnerable” and estimates the global population as 100,000, with most of these in the northern hemisphere.

More whales could also be a good sign for the health of the ocean more generally—and even efforts to tackle climate change.

Whales feed on iron-rich krill but they also defecate in the —returning nutrients to the ocean that help spark the growth of tiny phytoplankton, the foundation of the marine food web.

Like plants on land, phytoplankton photosynthesise using the sun’s rays to turn carbon dioxide into energy and oxygen.

They are “ecosystem engineers”, said Herr, who first spotted a large group of the whales by chance in 2013 during a research mission into Antarctic Minke whales.

Industrial whaling saw fin whales slaughtered to near-extinction during the 20th Century.

She now plans more missions to investigate the enduring mystery of these ocean giants—where they breed.

“We don’t know where they go,” said Herr, adding that much more is known about the fin whales of the northern hemisphere.

Herr’s team was able to put satellite tags on four animals last year, but a mission to go back to the Antarctic with more tracking equipment has been delayed until next year by the pandemic.


This elusiveness is even more astonishing given the size of fin whales.

The animals can grow up to around 27 meters (88 feet), although Herr said that they now tend to average 22 meters, particularly after whaling that targeted the biggest creatures.

In all some 700,000 individual fin whales were killed during the 20th century for the oil in their body fat.

All populations of whales in the region were ravaged, from the biggest blue whales down to the smallest minke until commercial hunting was stopped in a series of agreements in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It’s an example of how humanity treats resources,” said Herr.

“They just exploit them as long as they can and only stop when it’s not commercially valuable anymore. As long as you can make profit, it will be exploited.”

More information:
Helena Herr, Return of large fin whale feeding aggregations to historical whaling grounds in the Southern Ocean, Scientific Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-13798-7.

© 2022 AFP

Huge groups of fin whales sign of hope for ocean giants (2022, July 9)
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Hexbyte Glen Cove Vermont bald eagle restoration follows years of trying

Hexbyte Glen Cove

In this Aug. 19, 2012 file photo, a pair of nesting bald eagles perch in a tree near their nest on Lake Bomoseen in Castleton, Vt. The state of Vermont is proposing to remove the bald eagle from the state’s list of threatened and endangered species. It comes 13 years after Vermont lost the distinction of being the only state in the continental United States without any breeding pairs of bald eagles. Credit: AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File

Thirteen years after Vermont lost the ignominious distinction of being the only state in the continental United States without any breeding pairs of bald eagles, the state is moving to remove the iconic national symbol from its list of threatened and endangered species.

Since 2008 the number of breeding eagles have grown to where, last year, biologists discovered 64 young eagles in the state and more than 75 were found in a recovery region, which includes portions of New Hampshire and New York.

“They are pretty amazing looking birds. They are huge, first of all, they’re just a striking predator,” said Margaret Fowle, a conservation biologist with Vermont Audubon who has been working on eagle projects in the state for almost 20 years. “For me, every time I see them, it’s kind of awe-inspiring.”

Removing the eagles from the state list was the culmination of decades of work at the state, regional and national level that benefitted a number of other species of birds and other animals, said Mark Scott, the director of wildlife for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“When people care about something and we all come together to work on things great things can happen,” Scott said Thursday.

Habitat destruction and the use of the pesticide DDT beginning in the 1940s reduced the numbers of bald eagles across North America. By the early 1960s, bald eagles—adopted as the national symbol in the 1700s—were nearly wiped out.

DDT was banned in 1972. In 1978, the bald eagle was placed on the federal endangered species list.

Vermont’s list of threatened and endangered species is separate from the federal list, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The bald eagle was removed from the federal list in 2007.

Vermont wasn’t part of the original bald eagle reintroduction plans in the 1970s and 1980s, Fowle said. The eagles were in neighboring states and people expected them to come back to Vermont naturally.

“From what I’ve learned they are sort of slow to pioneer new places so they tend to saturate an area before they spread into new areas,” she said.

Throughout the early 2000s, Vermont biologists were repeatedly frustrated by efforts to bring back the birds, which were known to be successfully breeding in the adjacent states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York. Some were nesting within just a few hundred yards of Vermont.

The state tried to lure breeding eagles to Vermont by building nests and laying deer carcasses near them.

In 2002, eagles were spotted building a nest, but the next year great horned owls took over the nest. In 2005, eagles built two nests in southeastern Vermont but didn’t lay any eggs. Then in 2006, a pair hatched an eaglet in Rockingham—but a few weeks later, the young bird was found dead.

Around the same time biologists began raising young eagles in special boxes in the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison. By the time the project ended in 2006, biologists had raised 29 young eagles.

The September 2008 confirmation that a bald eagle pair had successfully raised a young eagle along the upper reaches of the Connecticut River ended Vermont’s distinction as the only state without breeding eagles. It’s unclear if those birds came from the Dead Creek program.

As a proven success to the program, this year the Vermont Endangered Species Committee determined the bald eagle population has grown to the point where it no longer needed the additional protections.

Scott said that even after the eagles are delisted, they will still be protected by state and federal laws.

But it’s not all good news: The Vermont Endangered Species committee is recommending adding the American bumblebee, some species of plants and smaller birds to the state’s list.

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Vermont bald eagle restoration follows years of trying (2021, October 7)
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