The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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Summer fieldwork from the Norwegian Polar Institute - Seals and whales

We received a great update on some of the summer fieldwork conducted by the Norwegian Polar Institute, including one of our Scientific Committee members, Christian Lydersen. Thanks for the report, Kit and Christian! 

All text and photos credited to Kit M. Kovacs and Christian Lydersen, Norwegian Polar Institute

Report from NPI summer fieldwork ‐ with seals and whales

Like many summers in the past, this year we have had a research expedition in Svalbard’s coastal waters using the sailboat «Meridian» as a base to work with various seals and whales. This year our primary target was white whales, but ringed seals were also a focal species… and sampling has been done on the large whales sighted along our path as well.

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Participants in Part I of the excursion – from the left ‐ Guttorm Christensen (Akvaplan‐Niva), Espen Lydersen (College of Southeast Norway (HSN)), the legendary Arctic Seas Captain Oddmund Isaksen (Akvaplan‐Niva), Kit M. Kovacs (NPI), Jade Vacquie‐Garcia (NPI) and Christian Lydersen (NPI).

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For part II of the excursion ‐ Guttorm and Espen were replaced by Martin Haupt (African Wildlife Tracking, Sør‐Afrika) on the left (with Kit in the middle) and Marie‐Anne Blanchet (a recent NPI PhD graduate, now at the University of Tromsø) to the right.

We operated in a restricted area on the west side of Spitsbergen during the whole expedition this year, with most of our time spent searching for white whales. This tagging/sampling operation is part of our Norwegian Research Council funded project «Ice whales", in which all of the cetacean community in Svalbard is featured, with the three Arctic resident species receiving special focus.

When we find white whales, we shoot out ahead of them and set a net from land, and then attempt to guide one of them into the net. Even though this is a small whale species, they often weigh over 1000 kg, so one is enough for the net ‐ and us ‐ to deal with at a time. When we have a strike, we work quickly to get the whale disentangled and secured, using a tail rope over the fluke to limit mobility and a head‐net to ensure that we have control over the whale’s breathing. We then set about taking the measurements and samples (blood, skin scrapes, blow expulsions, skin and blubber) and finally – we get the satellite tag attached.

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Our measurements of length and girth (around the animal at the level of the front flippers) are used to estimate weight. The various samples collected will be used for dietary, ecotoxicology, health and genetics studies. The blow expulsions are new for us – these will be used for «metabolonics» studies (molecular level health testing). Finally, the satellite tag is mounted on the dorsal ridge. These «tags» report the locations of the animals and their dive depths and durations as well as water temperature.

A couple pictures below – show the team in action.

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When the tag is secure – the whale is carefully guided off the beach, such that it cannot roll on its new «jewellery». Then it is time to repair the net for the next capture event.

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Once we have an animal in a pod marked – we can use its locations to find the group again to attempt to capture addition animals. Several of the animals we captured this summer were found in this way. The picture below shows one of our instrumented whales back in its group – which we found feeding out in the middle of Isfjorden. It is always reassuring to see tagged animals back in their normal social setting, with the tag sitting comfortably in place.


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This summer we also captured and instrumented ringed seals with GPS‐satellite tags that perform CTD (Conductivity‐Temperature‐Depth) measurements. These tags report their detailed geographic and oceanographic data directly to the Argos satellite system. We hope that the animals will spend a lot of their time near tidal glacier fronts to provide detailed data on the dynamics of these important water masses, which are difficult to sample using other methods. This research effort is part of NPI’s ICE Centre glacier programme that is studying the physical and biological systems associated with tidal glaciers, which is linked to the TIGRIF project, financed by the Norwegian Research Council (Lead by Dr Jack Kohler, NPI). The seals are captured in nets and the tags are then glued to their hair.

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The tags will remain in place until the seals moult (replacing their hair) late next spring.

As mentioned above – we also take the opportunities presented to take biopsies from the larger whales encountered in our travels. For this sampling ‐ we use a crossbow with special arrow heads – that take a skin and blubber biopsy. Similar to the white whale tissue samples, this material will be used for is used for dietary, ecotoxicology and genetics studies. We currently have little information on the stock identity of the blue (fin and humpback) whales that summer in Svalbard and nothing is known about how their changing status in the archipelago (longer stays in new areas) is affecting the whales that live in the area year‐round. Below – a sample is being taken from a blue whale, which is always an exciting event – the largest animal on earth never fails to impress – particularly at close range.

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So – all in all – we have had a wonderful, successful field season with lots of new and exciting data collected. Our whole team has done a great job – in high spirits throughout the trip!

Best regards
Kit & Christian

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More beaked whales and minke whales seen in the Norwegian cetacean surveys this summer

The sightings surveys in Jan Mayen and the Norwegian Sea, conducted by the Institute of Marine Research in Norway, were very successful this year. Two interesting findings reported by IMR were more beaked whales and minke whales. Beaked whales were previously thought to migrate out of the area during summer. The increased sightings of minke whales is interesting because of previous decreases seen in Icelandic waters, and suggests that these "missing" whales likely have moved into the Jan Mayen area. 

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You can read much more on the Institute of Marine Research website (link below). The article is in Norwegian, but use the Google Translate extension in Chrome to translate the page.

Nisene - tallrike, men sårbare?

(Kronikk i Fiskeribladet Fiskaren, 22.07.16):

Nisene er meget tallrike og Den internasjonale naturvernunionen (IUCN) klassifiserte i 2008 arten som ikke truet (Least Concern) på den globale rødlisten. Men nisene er notorisk utsatt for bifangst i fiskegarn og lokale bestander kan være truet. Det er viktig å få dette forholdet kartlagt for norske farvann.

Læs mere her


Cetacean distributions over the years

A new project using data from the North Atlantic Sightings Surveys (NASS) and Norwegian surveys is now underway. The project will be conducted by Nadya C. Ramirez-Martinez and Philip S. Hammond of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews. 

The main goal of this project is to improve understanding of the environmental factors that influence the distribution and habitat use of a range of cetacean species in the central and northeast Atlantic over a period of three decades by modelling their relative abundance as a function of a series of static and dynamic variables.

Data on cetaceans are available from surveys conducted since 1987 over a large part of the central and eastern North Atlantic: the North Atlantic Sightings Survey (NASS) series and, more recently, the Norwegian Independent Line transect Surveys (NILS). Focal species will be fin, humpback, minke, sperm and pilot whales. Additional species may also be investigated, including the northern bottlenose whale, killer whale and delphinids as a group. Environmental data are available for static variables such as depth and slope, and dynamic variables such as sea surface temperature (SST), sea surface height (SSH), presence of fronts, structure of the water column, chlorophyll-a, primary productivity and, potentially, distribution of zooplankton and fish. We expect to provide a better understanding of the species ecology in the North Atlantic by identifying key factors that have influenced their distribution and habitat use in the last 30 years while also providing clues on how climate change may affect cetacean populations in the future.


The Ecosystem Approach to Management: status of implementation in the Arctic - Conference, August 2016

EA conference Alaska aug 2016

There is more than one way to fulfil our obligations to eliminate the unnecessary suffering of animals.

 Eliminate unnecessary suffering

Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

Is vegetarianism about not harming animals, or feeling morally superior? | Leslie Cannold for the Ethics Centre

The western obsession with rights makes it difficult to see their limitations. We speak about rights as if they were the only moral value with meaning, ignoring other important moral values like responsibilities or duties. In fact, responsibilities are the counterparts to rights – you can’t have one without the other.

Philosopher Carl Cohen writes that, “If animals have any rights, they must havethe right not to be killed to advance the interest of others.” Another way of putting this is that those who assert the rights of animals are in effect asserting – first and foremost – a right to life for all animals.

But for an animal to realise its right to life, farmers, hunters and researchers must collectively accept a duty not to kill them. Similarly, citizens, consumers and patients must refuse to eat, wear or use food, clothes and medicine that require an animal to die.

As I’ll be arguing in the IQ2 debate “Animal rights should trump human interests” in Sydney on Tuesday night, the assertion of an animal right to life is non-sensical. It would require us – just as one example – to stop animals from hunting one another, just like we stop humans from killing one another. But more importantly, it is unnecessary to achieve what is required to improve the lot of animals.

Read more

NAMMCO Annual Report 2015 is out!

In the annual reports you will find reports of all major meetings held in the Commission during a one year circle. In addition you will find the national progress reports submitted by member countries on marine mammals. The most recent report contains reports of all 2015 meetings of the Scientific Committee and its Working Groups, the Committee on Hunting Methods, an Expert group meeting assessing Time to Death in the large whale hunts, the Committee on Inspection and Observation, the two Management Committees and the Council meeting held in February 2016.  

Fatty acids in common minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) blubber reflect the feeding area and food selection, but also high endogenous metabolism.

A new paper by: Sonnich Meier, Stig Falk-Petersen, Lars Aage Gade-Sørensen, Michael Greenacre, Tore Haug & Ulf Lindstrøm

accessible here

The fatty acid (FA) composition has been analysed in the blubber of 56 minke whales caught during the Norwegian commercial whaling period in 2009–2011. Minke whales from four
regions were sampled: the North Sea, Vesterålen, Spitsbergen/Bear Island and Finnmark. The FA profiles of the whale blubber have been compared with FA profiles of potential prey
species to investigate if FA analysis can be used to predict the diet of minke whales and how the FA profiles of the blubber reflect the regional ecosystem in which the whales were
caught. Clear differences in blubber FA profiles were found between minke whales from different areas, and the results of the present study show that FA analysis of the blubber can
be used to indicate the whale’s diet, but there appears to be a strong impact from metabolism on several FAs. The whale blubber FAs are separate from those of the prey by
having relatively high levels of FAs likely to originate from endogenous metabolism, such as 18:1n9 (Δ9-desaturation of 18:0); chain shortening products of 22:1(n-11); 20:1(n-11) and 18:1
(n-11); as well as 22:5(n-3), which is an elongation product of 20:5(n-3). High metabolic activity in the adipose tissue was also evident by the clear stratification of FA profiles found
throughout the blubber layer. It is remarkable that the whale blubber has much lower levels of the long-chain PUFAs 20:5(n-3) and 22:6(n-3) than found in the prey organisms. It is likely
that this results from selective partitioning of diet FAs between the storage lipids and membrane lipids.

NAMMCO 24 Council Meeting successfully completed

Press Release – NAMMCO  -  24th Annual Council in Oslo, 10-11 February

Whales and seals: Management matters!

The increasing stocks of narwhal, beluga and walrus are a clear result of sound and science-based management, following advice from NAMMCO, the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission.

This was one of several positive results and initiatives presented to the Council of NAMMCO at its annual meeting in Oslo on February 10-11.

However, the NAMMCO Council recognises that increased human activities (shipping, mining, etc.) in the Arctic may threaten the ecosystem. The parties were particularly concerned by a large scale iron-ore project (Mary River Project operated by Baffinland Iron Mines Corp) which may include up to 10 months a year shipping through some of the most important areas for narwhal, beluga and walrus. The increased shipping activities and noise disturbances could lead to the marine mammals abandoning these areas. This could have severe consequences for local communities, both in Canada and Greenland.

Also, climate change carries serious consequences for marine mammals. This can already be seen from the decreasing blubber thickness of harp seals and minke whales in the Barents Sea, and the changes in geographical distribution of minke whale and fin whale around Iceland.

Therefore, effective ecosystem-based management matters.


For more information concerning the Council Meeting outcome, see here.


Can something really happen in time?

"The take home message here is that Arctic nations need to react faster and more diligently to the changes that are taking place. Sitting back and watching, or not watching, this unfold, as they did in the 1990s and 2000s when circumpolar caribou populations crashed, is not the answer."

"The opportunity to act fast could arise during a meeting in March when President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discuss issues of mutual interest. Whether that will happen is far from clear."

Read more here:…/20…/02/03/future-arctic-science

 Something happening?