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Cetacean Assessment & Ecology Program

Pushed to the Edge: Soviet Catches of Right Whales in the Eastern North Pacific

see caption Figure 4.  The Soviet whaling factory ship, Sovetskaya Rossiya, which killed 142 right whales in the Gulf of Alaska in 1962–63.  At 30,000 tons, this was the largest whaling factory ship ever built.  Photos courtesy of MOSCOW Project.  Photographer unknown.

As reported previously in the AFSC Quarterly Report, July–Sept, 2006, National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) scientists have been centrally involved in documenting the former Soviet Union's extensive campaign of illegal whaling (see Clapham and Ivashchenko 2009, Marine Fisheries Review), which took well over 150,000 "unreported" whale catches worldwide. These catches included North Pacific right whales in the southeastern Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska in the 1960s, as well as in the Sea of Okhotsk. Some information on these catches was published by the former Soviet biologist Nikolai Doroshenko, who documented 372 right whales taken from the eastern North Pacific between 1963 and 1968.

However, a recent search of former Soviet archives has revealed new data on the catches, including discovery of an additional 142 animals taken in the Gulf of Alaska by the Sovetskaya Rossiya whaling factory fleet in 1962 and 1963 (Fig. 4). Assuming these catches were indeed all excluded from previous assessments, this would bring the known total from this population to 514 whales, far more than was originally thought. Indeed, it is quite likely that these takes involved the bulk of the remaining right whales at that time, thus seriously jeopardizing any recovery of a population, which had already been severely reduced by historical whaling. Recently, NMML estimated the abundance of the eastern population at about 30 animals, making it the smallest whale population in the world for which an abundance estimate has been calculated (Wade et al. 2011, Biology Letters).

A newly discovered scientific report for the Sovetskaya Rossiya fleet for 1963 gives previously unknown location data for 112 right whales killed in June of that year in the central and northern Gulf of Alaska, together with the track of the factory ship and summaries of biological data. The sex ratio of the catch was strongly male-biased (73%, or 82 of 112 whales). The great majority of whales (62 of 66 examined) were sexually mature, and the report estimates an average length at attainment of sexual maturity of 15.5 m.

Many were large animals, with an overall length range in the catch of 9.7 m to 19.8 m; if the latter figure is correct, it represents a record length for a right whale anywhere in the world (the previous record was 18.2 m, also from the North Pacific). Ten of 18 examined mature females were pregnant. With the exception of data derived from some Japanese scientific catches of right whales, these represent the only available biological data on this species.

None of the Sovetskaya Rossiya catches from 1962 and 1963 were in an area south of Kodiak that Nikolai Doroshenko had identified as the location where right whales were taken; this is probably because Doroshenko's data referred to catches made by two other factory fleets (the Vladivostok and Dalnij Vostok fleets). Further investigations are underway to clarify this question and to assess whether the archives contain additional data on right whales. Meanwhile, the new data will be very useful in designing future surveys, although currently there is no funding at all for North Pacific right whale research despite the critically endangered nature of this population.

This work is part of a Ph.D. study and is an element of an endeavor known as the Memoirs Of Soviet Catches Of Whales (MOSCOW) project, which seeks to preserve memories, photographs, and other materials from the era of Soviet whaling. Photographs and information on this effort are available at http://www.moscowproject.org.

By Yulia V. Ivashchenko and Phillip J. Clapham

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