Before Whaling, How Many Humpbacks Existed?

Written by on February 15, 2013 in Marine Life, Whales & Dolphins
Humpback whales.

Humpback whales. Photo credit: NOAA.

Scientists used new techniques to find out how many humpback whales existed in the North Atlantic before whaling began.

Researchers from Stanford University, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and other organizations have found that there used to be more than 100,000 individuals living in the North Atlantic. This number is lower than an estimate from a previous study, but much higher than estimates based on data from whaling records.

“We have spent a great deal of effort refining the techniques and approaches that give us this pre-whaling number,” said Dr. Steve Palumbi of Stanford. “It’s worth the trouble because genetic tools give one of the only glimpses into the past we have for whales.”

Commercial whaling caused humpback whale populations to decline dramatically–by as much as 90 percent. Experts estimate that there are around 17,000 individuals in the North Atlantic today, but researchers and conservationists need to know pre-whaling population estimates so that they can tell just how well humpbacks are recovering.

“We’re certain that humpback whales in the North Atlantic have significantly recovered from commercial whaling over the past several decades of protection, but without an accurate size estimate of the pre-whaling population, the threshold of recovery remains unknown,” said Dr. Kristen Ruegg of Stanford and the lead author of the study. “We now have a solid, genetically generated estimate upon which future work on this important issue can be based.”

Their genetic analysis indicates that there were between 45,000 and 235,000 whales (average of 112,000).

“These genetic estimates greatly improve our understanding of the genetic diversity of humpback whales, something we need to understand the impact of past hunting and to manage whales in the uncertain future,” said co-author Scott Baker, Associate Director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.

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Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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