The fin whale is currently listed as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and has been upgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable status by the International Union for the Conservation of nature (IUCN) in 2018. The second largest whale species on Earth (after the blue whale), fin whales are also protected under Appendix I of CITES and the Mammalian Protection Act seafarers throughout their range.
Distinguished by the crest along their back and two-colored lower jaws, fin whales were relentlessly hunted by commercial whalers in the mid-1900s, thus contributing to nearly 725,000 deaths in the southern hemisphere alone before the industry was largely eradicated in the 1970s and 1980s.
Despite an estimate 100,000 people alive today, IUCN argues that the world’s fin whale population is increasing, mainly through reduced commercial whaling. Projections indicate that the total population of the species has likely recovered at more than 30% levels three generations ago.
Although whaling is no longer considered a significant threat to fin whales today (the species is still hunted in Iceland and Greenland, albeit with strict quotas managed by the International Whaling Commission), they are still vulnerable to other factors such as collisions with vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, noise pollution and climate change.
Fin whales need a large amount of small species of prey to survive, which they extract from the water through the baleen. Only one whale can eat over 4,400 pounds of krill every day. For this reason, a threat to fin whale prey due to environmental changes and overfishing is also an indirect threat to fin whales themselves.
Due to their large size and the overlap between migration patterns and vessel transit areas, fin whales are one of the most frequently reported species in vessel strikes. Since many of the collisions involving large vessels can be difficult to detect (or go unreported), it is difficult to assess the actual number of fin whale fatalities or injuries associated with collisions.
That said, scientists are able to make precise estimates based on specific sea routes that intersect whale habitats. The shipping lanes of the Santa Barbara Canal in California, for example, have one of the highest whale deaths due to collisions with ships in U.S. waters off the eastern Pacific. A predictive model published in the journal Marine Conservation and Sustainability showed an estimate of 9.7 fin whales killed in collisions with ships each year between 2012 and 2018 in Santa Barbara (13% to 26% more than previously estimated).
Another study in 2017 found that fin whale mortality in US west coast waters is approximately double that of blue whales and 2.4 times that of humpback whales. Between 2006 and 2016, whale mortality was highest along the coasts of central and southern California, particularly along the shipping routes between the Port of Long Beach / Los Angeles and the San Bay area. Francisco.
It is not only ship collisions that impact fin whales, but also the underwater noise that ships make. Fin whales produce a variety of low frequency sounds to communicate, some of which can reach 196.9 dB, making them one of the loudest animals in the ocean. Increased underwater noise can negatively affect entire populations of fin whales by altering their normal behavior, driving them away from important breeding or feeding areas, and even causing stranding or death.
According to a study by the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague and Oregon State University, we may have even more to lose when it comes to fin whales and noise pollution. Research published in 2021 found that measuring sound waves in fin whale songs could help determine the composition and thickness of the earth’s crust, helping scientists study underwater geology without having to rely on underwater seismic air guns, which are traditionally used to study the Earth’s ocean crust, but can be expensive and unfriendly to the environment.
Entanglement of fishing gear
When fin whales become entangled in fishing gillnets and other equipment, they can swim with the gear and become tired, not be able to reproduce and feed, or injure themselves under the weight. In more serious situations, they can be completely immobilized by the craft and starve or drown.
Research shows that threats to these whales from fishing entanglements are much worse than previously thought. A study off the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada (an important feeding area for whales) found that at least 55% of fin whales studied had scars on their bodies corresponding to an entanglement, suggesting they had been caught in fishnets at some point in their lives.
Like all marine animals, the threat to fin whales from climate change and warming oceans is monumental, especially since whales draw their cues from important behaviors (such as browsing and feeding) directly from their environment. .
Altered ocean conditions and the timing or distribution of sea ice can also disconnect fin whales from their prey, leading to changes in diet, stress, and even reduced reproductive rates.
In 2015, NOAA revealed an unusual mortality event that resulted in the deaths of 30 large whales in the Gulf of Alaska, one of the largest strandings on record in the region; the mortality event included 11 fin whales. At the time, NOAA had suggested that warmer ocean temperatures and the resulting record toxic algal blooms were likely the cause of the tragedy.
What we can do
One of the best ways to access conservation measures within the global fin whale population is to determine the actual number of whales in each subpopulation and monitor the fluctuation of the stock over time.
NOAA’s Fisheries Division is preparing annual stock assessment reports for all marine mammals in U.S. waters by territory to assess the overall health of global populations, discover vulnerable areas, and establish the best course of action for each species.
Extending speed limits for large ships in certain areas could also reduce collisions with ships. The same study in Marine Conservation and Sustainability found that if 95% of ships over 300 tonnes traveling on the Santa Barbara Canal shipping lanes implemented the voluntary vessel speed reductions requested by NOAA, it could reduce mortality from collisions with whales. by 21-29%. Although most of these speed limits are voluntary, some regions may consider mandatory speed reductions if desired levels of cooperation cannot be achieved.
Living at the top of their food chains, fin whales play an extremely important role in the overall health and balance of our planet’s marine environment. The good news is that these awe-inspiring animals have already demonstrated the ability to bounce back after relentless whaling threatened to wipe them out altogether, indicating just how strong the species can be when backed by conservation.
What you can do to help the fin whale
- Reduce your speed in known areas where fin whales are found, watch for blows, fins or caudal fins and always stay at least 100 yards away.
- Report whales that appear sick, injured, entangled, stranded, or dead to the nearest organizations that are trained to respond to marine animals in distress. NOAA has a online tool to help determine who to contact after encountering a stranded or injured whale.
- Do your part to reduce ocean pollution by saying no to single-use plastics and switching to reusable products.