Gray whale death raises fear of extinction

Posted: 1 February 2007

A critically endangered Western Pacific Gray Whale (Western Gray Whale) has died off the coast of Japan after becoming trapped in fishing gear. It is a problem which now threatens this rare creatures with extinction.

This is the fourth Western Gray Whale, all female, to be killed in fishing nets on the Pacific coast of Japan in the last two years.

Western Gray Whale
Western Gray Whale
Western Gray Whale breaching Photo: © IUCN/Dave Weller
The Western Gray Whale population comprises about 120 individuals, of which only 20 to 25 are reproductive females. If this rate of loss of females continues, it will is likely to lead to the population's extinction, according to a projection prepared by the World Conservation Union's Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel.

The whale, a juvenile female of approximately 9 metres length, was dead when discovered by fishermen on 19 January 2007 in Yoshihama Bay, off the north eastern coast of Honshu. It was reported that scientists from the Institute of Cetacean Research (Tokyo) undertook a detailed analysis of the carcass before it was burned.

"We are extremely worried about this problem of incidental mortality in fishing gear as it could become a major factor inhibiting the recovery of Western Gray Whales. We are eager to receive more information on the circumstances surrounding the deaths and anticipate that Japanese authorities will take action immediately to reduce this risk to the whales," said Randall Reeves, Chair of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel.

Killing prohibited

The World Conservation Union established this independent scientific advisory panel to monitor the whale population and provide advice on protection measures, particularly in regard to oil development activities off Sakhalin Island, Russia, where the whales spend the summer and fall months feeding.

"We are extremely concerned at the loss of this female, which belonged to one of the most endangered whale populations in the world," said Carl Gustaf Lundin, Head of IUCN's Global Marine Programme.

This incident follows similar events off the east coast of Japan in 2005, when three Western Gray Whales, including a female and her female calf, and a yearling female were trapped and died in fixed fishing nets. The Western Gray Whale population is listed as critically endangered (the highest category of threat) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Killing Western Gray Whales is prohibited by the International Whaling Commission.

"We don't know why the incidence of Western Gray Whale entrapments off Japan has suddenly increased. In the ten years prior to 2005, only two gray whale deaths had been recorded on the Pacific coast of Japan, both of them strandings and possibly naturally caused. It is essential to find out what is causing this spate of net entrapments, so that remedial action can be taken," said Lundin.

The World Conservation Union will approach the Government of Japan to find ways of cooperation on these issues.

Additional information will be posted on the IUCN website as it becomes available.