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AFSC Historical Corner:  Whale Research (and Whaling)

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Species Research
  - Salmon
  - Other Fish
  - Fur Seals 1,2,3,4
  - Whales / Whaling
  - Marine Mammals
  - Red King Crab
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Federal Hatcheries
Fisheries Management
Environmental and Ecosystem Monitoring
beluga whale
Arctic beluga (or white whale).  Drawing, 1820.

NOTE:  This page is under development,
            pending additional content.

Event items:

  • Automated database for North Pacific whaling statistics, 1974

    Dr. Michael Tillman and Jeffrey Breiwick completed major steps in the development, of an automated database for whaling statistics of the North Pacific Ocean. Breiwick completed placing the catch, effort, and length distribution data for 1972-73 onto data cards.

    Tillman finished a preliminary validation of the extensive 1966-71 data set (over 10,000 cards) received from Dr. K. Radway Allen, Chairman, IWC (International Whaling Commission) Scientific Committee. A comparison of segments of this data set with the raw data sheets showed a considerable number of validation problems, the correction of which will substantially delay the formation of an automated database. Consequently, U.S. assessments for the special December meeting of the IWC Scientific Committee at La Jolla, California will again have to rely on Japanese summaries of raw data from the North Pacific.

    Breiwick also completed computer runs of his population assessment model for Antarctic sei whale stocks and is in the process of writing his results. Sei whales are members of the rorqual group, are found in all oceans and are black above, shading to bluish gray). These results will be included in a population estimate of the species for the IWC.
    (From Northwest Fisheries Center Monthly Report, Sept. 1974).

  • Computer program for retrieving whale photographs, 1980

    PISAR is the acronym for the Endangered Cetacean Task's Photographic Identification Storage and Retrieval Program developed by Mark Towner and William Lawton. Beginning in the summer of 1976, the group has amassed a large slide collection of photographs of flukes and dorsal fins of humpback whales as well as associated environmental, and behavioral data. These photographs were obtained from studies done by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory as well as contributions from private researchers. The photographs are used for individual identification and location. Current research effort is directed toward delineation of distribution, abundance, and migration of humpback whales in the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

    Photographs are identified with a six-digit sequential integer and classified according to 25 variables, i.e. data, location, percent white, extent of scarring, etc. The data for each are entered and stored on a Cyber 6400 computer at the University of Washington, Seattle. DATALIB, a software package available at the University’s Academic Computer Center, is used to manipulate the database. (From Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center Monthly Report, Jan. 1980).
trapped whale
One of the three gray whales trapped by sea ice.
Dave Withrow (AFSC), photographer.
  • Gray whales rescued in "Operation Breakthrough", 1988

    Members of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) played important roles in "Operation Breakthrough," the animal rescue effort receiving worldwide attention which freed two gray whales trapped in the ice near Barrow, Alaska, in October.

    Dave Withrow and Dr. Jim Harvey, gray whale experts from the NMML, arrived in Barrow on 21 October to join ranks with a rescue team working round-the-clock in near-record low temperatures to save the whales. Withrow and Harvey had arrived prepared to attach radio transmitters to the trapped whales' backs to track the animals if a rescue effort was successful. The two biologists, however, quickly determined that attaching the transmitters was not appropriate because of the whales' sizes, conditions, and surfacing patterns, and because of limited tracking resources.

    Withrow and Harvey worked in close collaboration with Rescue Coordinator Ron Morris of the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region. Withrow, Harvey, Morris, and other members of the rescue team brainstormed a list of every possible rescue alternative. These rescue alternatives were then researched and prioritized. Howard Braharn (NMML Director) and Marilyn Dahlheim (NMML) assisted in researching the rescue alternatives by checking a variety of facts ranging from calculating the whales' weights from their estimated lengths for possible airlift attempts to talking with explosive experts about ways to remove a huge 30-foot pressure ridge of ice blocking the whales path to open water without harming the whales' or other marine animals.

    As part of their rescue effort, Withrow and Harvey also monitored the whales’ conditions daily. They checked the types and severity of the animals’ wounds and recorded the whales’ dive times to examine their dive patterns, an indication of the whales' overall condition and degree of stress. They also conditioned the whales to move along a string of breathing holes leading toward open water. Working with Inupiat Eskimo ice crews equipped with chain saws and de-icing machines, the biologists devised a means of teaching the whales to move from hole to hole, by enlarging some holes, increasing the distances between holes, and back filling older holes with ice or letting them refreeze. This allowed the whales to surface more normally and increased the distance they traveled under the ice. The whales quickly learned to follow the sound of the chain saws and de-icing machines, sounds which they associated with help and better surfacing conditions.

    NOAA also requested that the U.S. State Department ask the Soviet Government to send an ice-breaker to aid in the rescue effort since the massive pressure ridge was the last, but most formidable obstacle left. The Soviets complied with the request and on 28 October the whales were successfully freed.
    (From Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Quarterly Report, Oct.-Dec. 1988).

    See also:  Anonymous. 1989. NOAA Aids Rescue of Gray, Beluga Whales. Mar. Fish. Rev., 51(1):51.  (.pdf, 762 KB).
    and:  NOAA's Big Miracle Worker. 2012. NOAA Fisheries Service web page  (last accessed 2-2-12).

Additional reading:

  • Perry, S. L., D. P. DeMaster, and G. K. Silber. 1999. The Great Whales: History and Status of Six Species Listed as Endangered Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(1).  (index page)
  • Mahoney, B. A., and K. E. W. Sheldon. 2000. Harvest History of Belugas, Delphinapterus leucas, in Cook Inlet, Alaska. Mar. Fish. Rev. 62(3):124-133.  (.pdf, 713 KB).
  • Bockstoce, J. R., D. B. Botkin, A. Philp, B. W. Coolins, and J. C. George. 2005. The Geographic Distribution of Bowhead Whales, Balaena mysticetus, in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas: Evidence from Whaleship Records, 1849–1914. Mar. Fish. Rev. 67(3):1-43.  (.pdf, 4.38 MB).
  • Mizroch, S. A., and S. A. D. Harkness. 2003. A Test of Computer-assisted Matching Using the North Pacific Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, Tail Flukes Photograph Collection. Mar. Fish. Rev. 65(3):25-37.  (.pdf, 488 KB).
  • Reeves, R. R., T. D. Smith, J. N. Lund, S. A. Lebo, and E. A. Josephson. 2010. Nineteenth-century Ship-based Catches of Gray Whales, Eschrichtius robustus, in the Eastern North Pacific. Mar. Fish. Rev. 72(1):26-65.  (.pdf, 7.4 MB).
  • Scoresby, W. 1820. An Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and Description of the Northern Whale-Fishery. Printed for A. Constable & Co.  Vol I., 544 p. + appendix.  (.pdf, 26.5 MB)  and  Vol. II, 574 p.  (.pdf, 117 MB).
  • Clapham, P., and Y. Ivashchenko. 2009. A Whale of a Deception. Mar. Fish. Rev. 71(1):44-52.  (.pdf, 2.16 MB).
  • Schevill, W. E. (ed.). 1974. The Whale Problem. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Masschusetts. 384 p.
  • Various beluga whale papers. Mar. Fish. Rev. 62(3), 2000.  (index page).
  • Ivashchenko, Y. V., P. J. Clapham, and R. L. Brownell, Jr. 2011. Soviet Illegal Whaling: the Devil and the Details. Mar. Fish. Rev. 73(3):19 p.  (.pdf, 4.84 MB).
  • Rocha, R. C., Jr., P. J. Clapham, and Y. Ivashchenko. 2014. Emptying the Oceans: a Summary of Industrial Whaling Catches in the 20th Century. Mar. Fish. Rev. 76(4):37-48.  (.pdf, 190 KB).

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