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Studying the Endangered Okhotsk Sea Bowhead Whale Population

Bowhead whales are almost exclusively found in Arctic and subarctic waters and seasonally migrate between different waters. The Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East once had tens of thousands of bowhead whales, but their numbers declined significantly in the 19th and 20th century due to commercial whaling. To this day, much remains unknown about this southernmost Okhotsk whale population, which is believed to be the smallest and most isolated population of bowhead whales.
 
Of great concern for the species are the rapidly rising sea and air temperatures of the Sea of Okhotsk. Air temperatures, which have been rising five times faster than the global average, could have drastic consequences on the region’s waters and sea ice cycles. Such changing conditions in the Okhotsk Sea means that bowhead whales could face increasing threats such as killer whale predation, new diseases, human activity, possible decrease in food supply, and competition with other mammals.

Studies on the Okhotsk Sea population are scant. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Soviet scientists conducted aerial surveys in the Okhotsk Sea to better understand bowhead whale distribution. Recent studies in the Shantar region from 2011–2016 suggested that the Okhotsk Sea bowhead population might be declining. However, the migratory data of bowhead whales remains limited.

A study by Dr Olga Shpak from the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences aimed to better understand the movements of bowhead whales to find out when the species overlap with human activities. The researchers used satellite telemetry to track their locations from signals emitted from transmitters attached to the whales. Drone footage was also used to create a photo-ID catalogue that also documented the possible natural and human-related impacts to the species. It was found that entanglement and killer whales were a major threat to Okhotsk whales.

 
The researchers assessed human activities in Wrangel Cove in the Shantar region and concluded that watercraft affected the behaviour of Okhotsk whales. Additionally, modelling based on data from 1995–2020 revealed that the bowhead whale population is in decline. Given all the findings from the project, the researchers expressed the urgent need to identify and address the primary causes of bowhead mortality and strengthen whale conservation in the Okhotsk Sea.

The researchers’ findings were shared to relevant stakeholders as general whale watching recommendations in Wrangel Cove. The results were also put forward to define priority research and conservation measures in the draft Conservation Strategy of the Okhotsk Sea bowhead whales by the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of the Russian Federation. Finally, their modelling data will be presented to the IWC Scientific Committee, and the current status of the Okhotsk population of bowhead whales in the IUCN Red List will be reassessed.

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