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Whale populations are too low to resume commercial hunting, geneticists find

Scientists have vastly underestimated the number of humpbacks and other great whales that inhabited the North Atlantic Ocean before the advent of whaling, according to geneticists from Stanford and Harvard Universities. Their findings, published in the journal Science, could represent a major setback for countries that advocate lifting a 17-year moratorium on commercial whaling established by the London-based International Whaling Commission.

"The IWC is the main organization that regulates whaling, and its policies allow for the resumption of commercial hunting when populations reach a little more than half of their historic numbers," said Stephen R. Palumbi, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford and co-author of the July 25 Science study. The problem, he noted, is that the IWC bases its historic estimates on unconfirmed whaling records dating back to the mid-1800s.

"It is well known that hunting dramatically reduced all baleen whale populations, yet reliable estimates of former whale abundances are elusive," wrote Palumbi and Harvard graduate student Joe Roman, lead author of the study. "Whaling logbooks provide clues, but may be incomplete, intentionally underreported or fail to consider hunting loss."

Genetics surprise

To assess the accuracy of historic whaling records, Roman and Palumbi turned to the science of population genetics. "Our study marks the first attempt to use genetics rather than whaling records to confirm the number of whales that used to exist," said Palumbi, whose lab is based at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station. "The genetics of populations has within it information about the past. If you can read the amount of genetic variation the difference in DNA from one individual whale to another and calibrate that, then you can estimate the historic size of the population."

In their study, Roman and Palumbi focused on the genetics of humpback, fin and minke whales three species decim
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Contact: Mark Shwartz
mshwartz@stanford.edu
650-723-9296
Stanford University
24-Jul-2003


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