The Southern Ocean around Antarctica was the main commercial whaling region from the late 19th into the 20th century. It is estimated that over 2 million whales of various species were taken during that period.
In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling and in 1994 created a whale sanctuary in the Southern Ocean. Until recently and the creation of the IWC Southern Ocean Research Partnership (IWC-SORP), little data had been gathered surrounding the current status of whale populations in the area.
Large whales, the focus of this particular project, are important to the ecology of the Southern Ocean. However, due to climate change, the region is undergoing rapid environmental transitions and it is important to establish baseline data on the seasonal presence and understand more about the ecological role of whales and dolphins inhabiting Antarctic waters.
As a result of this IWC-led research partnership, researchers from several nations are working collaboratively to improve our understanding on the current population status of whales using non-lethal methods as opposed to the so-called “scientific whaling” conducted by the Japanese Government.
Since 2014, WDC has been supporting research by Fundación Cethus who have led pioneering austral summer acoustic and visual surveys to the Scotia Sea (SS) and North West Antarctic Peninsula (NWAP) area. These cruises are part of the IWC-SORP component led by Argentina.
This important project is attempting to find answers to a number of questions, including:
- What species of whale and dolphin visit the SS and NWAP throughout the year?
- What is the relative number of individuals of each identified species in the surveyed area?
- What are the reasons affecting the presence and numbers of whales and dolphins in the area throughout the year?
- Which are the breeding areas of the whales observed feeding in Antarctic during the summer?
This project is conducted in collaboration with researchers of several countries of Latin America, USA, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, all members of the IWC-SORP. Results are disseminated yearly through reports to the IWC Scientific Committee, national authorities, as well as published in scientific journals.
Specific objectives of this project are:
- Improve knowledge of the current status (abundance, distribution, habitat use, foraging behaviour) of post-whaling populations of whales and dolphins in the Southern Ocean.
- Address a current lack of descriptions of the vocalisations of certain whale species to allow implementation of passive acoustic monitoring of such species year-round through an autonomous recorder deployed in the NWAP.
- Identify spatial and temporal trends in whale and dolphin distribution, and possible effects of climate change and growing human activity in the SS and NWAP on which to base conservation management advice.
- Improve knowledge of whale and dolphin migratory routes through photo-identification.
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