Updated: March 2019
The fin whale is a large baleen whale, the second largest living animal, second in size only to the blue whale. Fin whales are the most streamlined in appearance of all the rorquals and have been nicknamed “razorback”. They are dark grey to brownish black in colour along the top of the body, with an asymmetrically pigmented head. Females are slightly longer than males. Adult males average 19 m and adult females 20.5 m in the Northern Hemisphere, weighing between 45 and 75 tonnes. Fin whale blows are tall and impressive and can often be seen at a great distance. Fin whales are sleek, fast swimmers.
Over 50,000 fin whales in the North Atlantic (NAMMCO 2011ac).
Over the entire NAMMCO area, ranging from polar to tropical waters, but not close to ice.
Most common in the East Greenland – Iceland – Jan Mayen area and west of the Iberian Peninsula during summer.
Annual catches since 2000:
– Greenland: between 5 and 13 whales
– Iceland: from 0 to 155 whales since 2006, when fin whaling resumed
International management regime by NAMMCO and the International Whaling Commission.
Clear evidence of recovery in the North Atlantic. Population likely close to or larger than before the onset of modern whaling (1880s).
The populations of the Central stock (EG+WI+[EI+F]) and the West Greenland area (WG), the two areas from which catches are taken, are considered in a healthy state and can sustain catches (latest assessments: IWC 2016, NAMMCO 2017).
Latin: Balaenoptera physalus (Linnaeus, 1758)
English: Common rorqual, finback, fin-backed whale, finner, herring whale, razorback
French: Rorqual commun, baleine à nageoires, baleine fine, baleinoptère commune
Spanish: Ballena aleta, ballena boba, rorcual común
19-21 m long, 45-75 tonnes in the Northern Hemisphere. Females are larger
Up to 85-90 years
One calf every 2-3 years from 7-12 years of age
‘Lunge-gulping’ on euphausids, krill and small pelagic fish
Between high-latitude feeding grounds in summer and lower-latitude breeding grounds in winter (most populations)
The fin whale is the second largest living animal, second in size only to the blue whale. This large baleen whale belongs to the rorqual family, also called balaenopterid family.
Fin whales are the most streamlined in appearance of all the rorquals and the distinct ridge along the back behind the dorsal fin gives them the nickname “razorback” (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983).
Fin whale blows are tall and impressive and can often be seen at a great distance. They reach six metres in height, shaped like a slim inverse cone. Fin whales are sleek, fast swimmers. Their exceptionally large size, streamlined appearance and the small falcate dorsal fin appearing just after the blow are probably the best identifying feature.
The ultimate identification is the asymmetrical head coloration, in particular for distinguishing a fin from a sei whale.
Fin whales have a falcate dorsal fin, about 60 cm high, set about two-thirds back along the body. The jaw is large and when the mouth is closed the lower jaw protrudes slightly beyond the tip of the snout. The flukes show a slightly concave trailing edges, but they are rarely raised out of the water.
Fin whales are dark grey to brownish black in colour along the top of the body, while the throat, belly and undersides of the flippers and tail flukes are white. Some fin whales have a pale grey chevron on each side behind the head and there may be a dark stripe running up and back from the eye, and a light stripe arching down to where the flipper joins the body.
The head has a single medial ridge and is asymmetrically pigmented, with the ventral white colouration extending up over the right lower lip and inside the mouth cavity and the baleen plate. The left side of the jaw is quite dark in contrast. The asymmetrical coloration pattern on the head is reversed on the tongue. Why fin whales have this asymmetrical pigmentation, rare among mammals, is not known, although it has been speculated that it may have something to do with their feeding strategy.
As other rorquals, the fin whale bears ventral grooves along the ventral side of the body. In this species there are 55 to 100 running from the underside of the lower jaw to beyond the navel.
A series of 260-475 baleen plates hang on each side of the upper jaw. They measure up to 90 cm in length and 30 cm in width at the base. The baleen plates on the left side of the mouth have alternating bands of creamy-yellow and blue-grey colour. On the right side, the forward 1/3 section of the plates is all creamy-yellow.
Males and females are very similar in their general appearance, but females are slightly longer than males. Adult males average 19 m and adult females 20.5 m in the Northern Hemisphere, while they are slightly longer in the south, averaging about 21 and 22.3 m respectively. Adult fin whales weigh between 45 and 75 tonnes, depending on the time of year and their individual body condition.
Fin whales off the coast of Northern Norway
The age of fin whales, as other rorquals (balaenopteridae), can be estimated by counting the growth layers present in waxy ear plugs, which are formed in the auditory canal (Lockyer 1984, Hohn 2002). Fin whales can live 80-90 years. The oldest specimen captured off Iceland was 94 years old (Konráðsson & Gunnlaugsson 1990) and off Antarctica 111 years old.
The biology of fin whales sampled from the Icelandic catch has been studied between 1977 and 1989 (Lockyer and Sigurjónsson 1992). In this area a female fin whale first gives birth at an age between 7 and 12 years, and a male reaches sexual maturity at about 6-10 years of age. The age of sexual maturity for both sexes has varied significantly over time, possibly in response to food availability and/or hunting pressure (e.g. Williams et al. 2013). Physical maturity is attained at approximately 25 years for both sexes.
Fin whales have generally a two-year reproductive cycle, with gestation taking about 11 months and resulting in a single calf born in mid winter. Newborn calves are approximately 6 m long and weigh two tonnes. Calves nurse for 6–8 months and are weaned when they are 10 to 12 m in length, when they travel with their mother to the feeding grounds. Mating and calving are thought to occur during the winter months, but no specific mating or calving “grounds” have been reported for fin whales.
Several hybrids of fin and blue whales, some pregnant, have been documented and 5 were genetically confirmed (Árnason et al. 1991, Spilleart et al. 1991, Bérubé and Aguilar 1998, Cipriano and Palumbi 1999). In 2013 a fin whale/blue whale hybrid was caught in the Irminger Sea west of Iceland. This is the fifth confirmed hybrid between these two species in Icelandic waters.
Fin whales are known to have a broad diet in the North Atlantic, including krill, copepods and pelagic fish such as capelin, juvenile herring and blue whiting (Sergeant 1966, Mitchell 1975, Overholtz and Nicholas 1979, Woodley and Gaskin 1996, Sigurjónsson and Víkingsson 1997, Bloch and Joensen 1985). Squid may also be eaten in some areas. In the North East Atlantic the main prey seems however, to be the swarming euphausiids Meganyctiphanes norvegica.
Although the fin whale is more flexible in its diet than the blue whale (B. musculus), its consumption of fish does not necessarily make it a significant competitor with fisheries (Reilly et al. 2008).
Fin whales can consume up to 3 tonnes of food a day. Feeding activity, however, varies greatly by season due to variation in prey abundance. It is vital for fin whales to build up energy reserves in the form of stored fat and blubber during the summer, since preys are less available in the wintering areas. During winter, daily food intake may be as low as a tenth of the summer intake.
Due to its large size and fast swimming, the fin whale has very few natural predators. However, calves and even adults may occasionally be taken by killer whales.
Killer whales attacking a fin whale
The fin whale has a worldwide distribution, occurring in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic Oceans. In all oceans, it ranges from tropical to polar regions, primarily in temperate to polar latitudes, being rare in tropical or ice-covered polar seas. Fin whales are largely pelagic (open-ocean dwellers), but may be seen in coastal waters in some areas, sometimes occurring in waters as shallow as 30 m.
At least 3 distinct worldwide populations are recognized – Southern Hemisphere, North Atlantic and North Pacific – which are further subdivided genetically (e.g., Martin 1990). Some taxonomists classify fin whales from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres as two subspecies, B.p. physalus and B.p. quoyi respectively. Northern and Southern Hemisphere populations never meet or mix across the equator because the seasonal patterns are reversed in the two hemispheres, and so they migrate to the equator at different times of year.
In the central and western Mediterranean, there is a resident subpopulation, which is genetically distinct from that of the North Atlantic (Bérubé et al. 1998).
DISTRIBUTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC
The 28-year long series of NASS and T-NASS summer sightings surveys provides a good understanding of the potential summer distribution of the species in the North Atlantic. The surveys are centred upon the three first week of July.
The species is present in summer over the entire NAMMCO area, ranging from temperate to polar waters, when it is most common off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, in the Davis Strait off Western Greenland, in the East Greenland – Iceland – Jan Mayen area and west of the Iberian Peninsula.
Fin whales are migratory, and exhibit seasonal north-south movements between lower latitudes in winter to warmer breeding grounds and high latitudes in summer to cold feeding grounds (Kellogh 1929, Mackintosh 1965, 1966). These migrations do not, however, necessarily involve the entire population and several resident populations are known to exist, as in the Mediterranean (Lockyer 1984, Mizroch et al. 2009).
North Atlantic fin whales may occur to some extent throughout the year in all of their range, as suggested by acoustic data (Clark 1995), although the density of individuals in any one area may change seasonally.
Fin whales are not usually seen in groups near islands or coasts and are difficult to study in the wild. Studying their habitat use is challenging for many reasons, including the large temporal and spatial scale needed. This is especially true in high latitudes, because of harsh environmental conditions. Knowledge has long been limited. Clear migratory routes and wintering (breeding) grounds have not been identified.
New techniques have recently permitted monitoring of the acoustic activity of cetaceans, witness to their presence and activities, over long-time periods, and independently of weather, sea, ice and light conditions (Mellinger et al. 2007). Simon et al. (2010) have recently brought new information on the migratory pattern and habitat use of fin whales in the Davis Strait, between Greenland and Canada, by monitoring the whales’ acoustics activity using three bottom-moored acoustic recorders over a 2-year period. They showed that fin whales are present in the area from June to at least the end of December and thus that at least part of the population migrate south much later than October, as previously believed (e.g. Norris 1967, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2008). Also, not all the whales migrate south to mate, some continue feeding, starting mating at high latitudes.
Morphometrics (body size and shape) and genetic studies point to the existence of several stocks of fin whales in the North Atlantic (Daníelsdóttir et al. 1991, 1992, Jover 1991, Bérubé et al. 1998). In addition, fin whales can be differentiated into regional groups by the sounds they make (Hatch and Clark 2004). However, at present, breeding grounds have not been identified for fin whales within the North Atlantic and there is not enough information to place boundaries around fin whale stocks with certainty.
FEEDING AREAS AS MANAGEMENT UNITS
For management purposes, fin whale stocks have therefore been generally defined, based primarily on the summer feeding concentrations of whales. Fin whales appear to return to the same feeding grounds year after year, and tagging studies have shown little relocation of whales outside of the summering stock areas in which they were tagged (IWC 1992).
Current management is based on stock boundaries proposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1977, based on the best available evidence at that time (Donovan 1991). Since then new evidence has not been contrary to the original stock delineation, but has allowed a refinement of the stock definition (IWC 2008, NAMMCO 2008).
The baseline stock hypothesis distinguishes
- 7 feeding/management areas (Figure below, upper): Canada; West Greenland; East Greenland; West Iceland; East Iceland – Faroes; North – West Norway; Spain.
- 4 breeding populations (Figure below, lowest): West, Central, East and Spain.
- Central population split into 3 sub-populations linked by diffusive mixing (Figure below, lowest):C1, C2 and C3.
Alternative hypotheses consider two forms of variation about the baseline hypothesis:
a) different mixing of breeding stocks on the feeding grounds.
b) a simplification of the baseline hypothesis by reducing the number of breeding populations from 4 to 3-2.
All of these hypotheses are used in simulation testing of various management regimes to ensure that projected levels of harvest will not be harmful to any stock. This stock definition may not fully describe the stock structure of fin whales in the North Atlantic, but reconciles best the available information from genetic and non-genetic evidence, and is considered safe for management purposes.
Current Abundance and Trends
Estimates of the abundance of fin and other species of whales in the North Atlantic have been based largely on sightings surveys conducted from ships and airplanes. The North Atlantic Sightings Surveys (NASS) provide a time-series of abundance estimates from 1987 to 2015, covering a large part of the North Atlantic. Norwegian “mosaic” surveys cover most of the Northeast Atlantic, surveying a portion of the area annually on a six year rotation. Changes in distribution from year to year are incorporated into the variance of the resultant abundance estimate (Skaug et al. 2004). In 2007, Canada joined NASS andthe first trans-Atlantic sightings survey was carried out: T-NASS.
In addition the Eastern European SCANS series including in 2007 the survey CODA (Cetacean Offshore Distribution and Abundance) and the American SNESSA (Southern New England to Scotian Shelf Abundance) surveys have contributed to our knowledge of fin whale abundance and distribution.
The NASS and T-NASS surveys were conducted primarily from ships, but coastal Iceland (where few fin whales were found), West and East Greenland and Eastern Canada were surveyed by plane. See under Abundance surveys for more details on specific surveys, including timing and procedures.
TOTAL ABUNDANCE IN THE NORTHERN ATLANTIC IN 2007: OVER 50,000 FIN WHALES
This number is based on the results (Figure below) of the surveys conducted in 2007 as a trans-Atlantic cooperation – SNESSA, T-NASS and CODA, as this represents the most comprehensive simultaneous survey of the North Atlantic. See under NASS/T-NASS for more information on this trans-Atlantic exercise under the NAMMCO umbrella.
The components of the overall T-NASS 2007 survey do not overlap in space, thus the surveys are additive and the estimates from each area can simply be summed. A simple sum of the estimates for CODA, Iceland-Faroes, Greenland and Canada yields a total estimate of 42,119 (CV = 0.15) (Pike and Víkingsson 2009, Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2010, Lawson and Gosselin 2011). To this may be added the estimate for the Norwegian survey area in the period 1996-2001 of 6,409 (CV = 0.18) (Øien 2009) and recent estimates from the American eastern seaboard of about 3,000 (Palka, pers. commn.). All of these estimates are negatively biased to a greater or lesser degree by uncorrected perception, availability and/or other biases (see under Abundance surveys for more information on biases). Therefore the total number of fin whales in the North Atlantic must exceed 50,000 (NAMMCO 2011ac).
ABUNDANCE IN 2015 in DIFFERENT AREAS
The available abundance estimates by areas are listed in the table below. The estimates listed have been endorsed by the NAMMCO Scientific Committee (NAMMCO 2017a), although the one for Iceland/Faroe Islands is a revised estimate. All estimates are likely underestimates, as the entire area of fin whale distribution was not covered in the surveys, and the estimates are not corrected for whales that were diving when the survey ship passed (availability bias). The estimates are corrected for whales that were missed by the observers (perception bias).
TRENDS IN ABUNDANCE
The NASS-TNASS series shows relatively rapid changes in the distribution and abundance of fin whales in Central North Atlantic but not in the Eastern Atlantic (Víkingsson et al. 2009).
The area to the west of Iceland (WI), between Iceland and East Greenland, in the EGI stock area, holds the most dense summer concentration of fin whales in the North Atlantic (See Figure to the left). Abundance estimates for this area shows an increasing trend of about 12% annually from 1987 to 2001 (Víkingsson et al. 2009, also see Table below and below the lowest figures under Trends in Abundance in Relation to change in Environmental Conditions). The estimates from 2007 for EG and WI are similar to those for 2001 for a similar area, and the increase observed over the period 1987-2001 could have apparently ceased. However, in the WI area, the abundance in 2015 is twice the abundance in 2007, while that for EG is of similar magnitude, suggesting the possibility of a further increase in this area since 2007. The area west of Iceland (WI) includes the former whaling grounds and recovery from whaling explains part of the increase in abundance. However modelling of the population (IWC 2016) suggests that it should have largely recovered from whaling, so other factors, including immigration from other areas and changes in carrying capacity, may be involved, including immigration from other areas and changes in carrying capacity.
Smaller numbers of fin whales are present off North Norway, where there is no indication of any trend in abundance (Víkingsson et al. 2009).
The numbers off West Greenland, where the surveys did not cover the entire distribution area of fin whales, showed a positive trend up to 2007, but the most recent survey in 2015 produced a substantially lower estimate. The decline cannot be explained by the catches , which are too low to have caused the decline (9 fin whales per year in average in the period 2008-2014, see under Hunting and Utilisation). Reasons for the decline are today unclear, but likely includes the ongoing large scale ecosystem changes (NAMMCO 2017b).
The table below gives the trend in abundance in the management sub-areas.
Some remarks should be made about the estimates given in this table.
- The mangement areas – so called small areas – are not believed to be representative of stocks. They were delineated around the historical catches – for example WI and EG have a continuous distribution of fin whales
- and there is no evidence that there are more than one stock in this area.
- Coverage of the areas, particularly of EI+F, varies between surveys but this is the best available.
- EG coastal, which has only been surveyed in 2015, has not been added to the EG 2015 abundance given in the table for sake of consistency when looking at trends. However, the coastal EG area is part of the EG management area and its abundance estimate should be added to the abundance estimate of the traditionally surveyed EG area when the purpose is to provide the best possible abundance for the EG area.
- All the values here are uncorrected for perception bias. Corrections are possible for 2001, 2007 and 2015 but then they would not be consistent with the earlier surveys. For fin whales, the corrected values will be 10-20% higher.
* Includes CODA block 1
TRENDS IN ABUNDANCE IN RELATION TO CHANGE IN ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS
Shifts in distribution and abundance of important prey species in the area might be a contributing factor to the observed trends, perhaps as a result of changes in sea temperature. The Figure below sets in parallel changes in sea temperature (200 m depth) between 1994 and 2003 and changes in the distribution of fin whales between 1989 and 2001. The extension of the whale distribution to the south and centre of the area seems to develop in parallel with the extension of the warmer waters (Víkingsson et al 2015).
NAMMCO has an ongoing programme to conduct assessments of fin whale stocks in the North Atlantic. The Scientific Committee of NAMMCO began this process in 1999, and to date has concentrated mainly on the East Greenland – Iceland – Faroes stock or Central stock (see under North Atlantic Stocks) . The first two assessments were based on the Hitter-Fitter procedure (NAMMCO 2000ab, 2001ab, 2004ab, 2006ab). An update for the northern part of the region was undertaken in 2006 in a joint workshop with the IWC (IWC 2007, NAMMCO 2007b) and continued in 2010, 2015 and 2017 when new abundance data became available (NAMMCO 2011bc, 2017ab).
The main uncertainty concerning fin whales in the North Atlantic remains the stock structure, with a set of possible hypotheses (see under North Atlantic Stocks for details) ranging from one stock covering the whole North Atlantic to five or more separate stocks – fin whales in the Mediterranean representing a separate stock (NAMMCO 2007b).
Besides recent estimates of abundance and trends in abundance estimates, the assessment of EGI fin whales is based on two sets of CPUE data (Catch Per Unit Effort), which provide information on trends in relative abundance over the 1901-1915 and 1962-1987 periods, i.e. before the series of NASS abundance surveys started.
Since 2003 (NAMMCO 2004a), the successive assessments of the EGI stock, although using different methodologies and lastely the new abundance estimate from the 20015 survey, have come to the same conclusion. The population has been increasing, although this increase has now likely ceased, and is approaching or at its initial, pre-harvest abundance (NAMMCO 2004ab, 2006ab, 2007bc, 2011bc, 2016, 2017, IWC 2016), with close to 30,000 whales.
East Iceland-Faroe Islands (EI+F)
Fin whales around the Faroe Islands are now considered part of the East Iceland-Faroe Islands feeding area (see Figure under North Atlantic Stocks), but the stock relationships of these whales are unclear. Summer abundance in the area has been relatively stable between 5-7 thousand animals except in 2007 when it was estimated to be less than 2,000. Present summer abundance is relatively low in the area given that high catches were taken here in the past. Depending on assumptions about the size of the stock area, fin whales in this area may be severely depleted (if the area is assumed to be small, for example the Faroese EEZ) or moderately depleted (if the stock area is assumed to be larger).
There is some indication that fin whales around the Faroes are not an isolated summer stock, as a single fin whale tagged with a satellite-linked transmitter near the Faroe Islands, moved south to the Bay of Biscay, then returned north to an area off northwest Ireland, between August and November (NAMMCO 2003, Mikkelsen et al. 2007). Also, there is a continuous distribution of fin whales between the Faroe Islands and eastern Iceland, indicating that they may be linked to the East Greenland-Iceland stock. Stock delineation remains the greatest problem for the assessment of fin whales in this area (NAMMCO 2004ab), and little progress has been made in this field.
Management Advice – EG+WI+EI/F areas
The West Iceland management area (WI), from where catches were traditionally taken, has had the highest rate of increase (10% between 1987 and 2001, NAMMCO 2007b; see also Figures under Current Abundance and Trends) and is currently above MSY level (Maximum Sustainable Yield).
In 2015, the NAMMCO Scientific Committee (SC) provided advice on sustainable catch levels in Icelandic coastal waters (the EG+WI sub-areas) that an annual catch limit of 146 fin whales in the WI sub-area was safe and precautionary (NAMMCO 2016). This was interim advice, valid for a maximum of 2 years (2016 – 2017), because of the lengthy time (8 years at that time) since the last abundance estimate for the sub-areas surrounding Iceland.
In 2017, the SC updated its advice and recommended that a catch limit of 161 fin whales in the WI area and 48 in EI/F area (based on application of the IWC’s RMP to the EG+WI+EI/F region) is safe and precautionary, and that this advice should be considered valid for a maximum of 8 years, 2018 to 2025 (NAMMCO 2017).
The favourable status of North Atlantic fin whales is also reflected in the recent regional IUCN assessment for Europe where the species is not considered threatened (Temple and Terry 2007).
WEST GREENLAND STOCK
NAMMCO has not assessed the stock of fin whales off West Greenland, because of the need for a newer abundance estimate and the uncertain stock affiliations of fin whales in this area. New estimates have now been obtained and endorsed and an assessment could be conducted. An annual aboriginal quota of 19 whales has been considered sustainable by the IWC for the periods 2015-2018, as in previous two periods.
EAST OR NORTH AND WEST NORWAY STOCK
Until now, it has not yet been possible to conduct an assessment for this area. However, given the rather low abundance estimates and the high historical harvest in the area, it can be expected that the stock will be found to be depleted. With new information (for example, abundance estimates, catch statistics, stock structure, etc.) now obtained for the areas, future assessment efforts can be directed towards this area.
Fin whales were a primary target for modern whaling. They were heavily reduced over their whole distribution range, although less so in the North Atlantic than in the North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere. The 70% overall worldwide population decline in the period 1929-2007 was mostly attributable to the major decline in the Southern Hemisphere (Reilly et al. 2008).
In the North Atlantic recent surveys and trend analyses show clear evidence of recovery. The population is now likely close to or larger than before the onset of modern whaling in the 1880s, numbering over 50,000 fin whales (NAMMCO 2011ac, Reilly et al. 2008). See under Current Abundance and Trends for details. The favourable status of North Atlantic fin whales is also reflected in the recent regional IUCN assessment for Europe where the species is not considered threatened (Temple and Terry 2007).
For the Central North Atlantic stock (East Greenland + Iceland + Faroes areas), recent surveys and modelling suggest that the population has been increasing, although this increase has now likely ceased, and that the population is approaching or at its initial, pre-harvest abundance (NAMMCO 2004ab, 2006ab, 2007bc, 2011bc, 2016, 2017), with over 30,000 whales.
The West Iceland management area (WI), from where catches were traditionally taken, has had the highest rate of increase (NAMMCO 2006ac, 2007bc; see also Figs 2 and 3 under Current Abundance and Trends). Although using different modelling approaches, the assessments NAMMCO has conducted since 2003 (2004ab, 2006ab, 2007bc, 2011bc, 2016, 2017) all indicate that catches of about 150 whales taken from this area would be sustainable. The last assessment also indicates that catches of about 40 whales from the East Iceland/Faroese area would be sustainable.
The status of fin whales in other parts of the North Atlantic has yet not been fully assessed.
STATUS ACCORDING TO OTHER INTERNATIONAL ORGANISATIONS
International Whaling Commission (IWC)
In its “Status of Whales”, the IWC states “Assessments of the population status [of fin whales] in the central North Atlantic and off West Greenland have shown populations there to be in a healthy state”.Using a different approach to NAMMCO, the IWC also concluded (IWC 2010a), that catches of about 150 whales taken from the West Iceland management area would be sustainable.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
The fin whale is classified as Endangered (‘Facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild’) on the IUCN Red List 2009 following the last assessment carried out in 2008 (Reilly et al. 2008).
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
The fin whale is listed on CITES Appendix I: ‘Species threatened with extinction’. For information: Iceland, Norway and Japan, which hold reservations against this listing, are not bound by it.
COMMENTS FROM NAMMCO ON IUCN AND CITES CLASSIFICATION FOR THE FIN WHALE
Although IUCN and CITES assess many different species at the population or stock level, they do not do so for the fin whale. The fin whale is treated and listed as a single mega-population, grouping the three recognized populations of the North Atlantic, the Southern Hemisphere and the North Pacific.
NAMMCO strongly questions the scientific appropriateness of such ‘species’ listings, when the conservation status of different populations and stocks may be very different, as is the case for fin whales (latest NAMMCO 2010c). Indeed, the recent regional IUCN assessment for Europe does not consider the North Atlantic fin whales as threatened (Temple and Terry 2007).
Pooling different populations together under a single listing can be misleading as the stocks are by definition reproductively isolated and may have very different conservation histories. This is particularly dangerous when the populations pooled together are very different in size, as is the case for fin whales where the Southern Ocean population was much larger than the others.
In its ‘Status of Whales‘, the IWC express the same opinion, stating “Although often people request information on status at the species level, biologically it is more sensible to consider status at the population level (although determining stock structure, particularly for populations where the breeding grounds are unknown, is difficult). A perfect example of why this is the case is the gray whale; there is one healthy population (and thus the species is not endangered) but also one critically endangered population that therefore requires immediate conservation action.”
In the case of the fin whale, the Southern Hemisphere population represented nearly 90% of the world fin whale population at the onset of whaling, as can be seen from the IUCN estimated population trajectory 1920-2007 (Figure below). In its 2008 assessment the IUCN itself states, “Most of the global decline over the last three generations is attributable to the major decline in the Southern Hemisphere. The North Atlantic sub-population may have increased, while the trend in the North Pacific sub-population is uncertain” (Reilly et al. 2008).
Regarding the IUCN listing, NAMMCO concluded in 2009 (NAMMCO 2010c) that as long as the IUCN continues its practice of pooling all fin whale stocks into single assessments, the outcome will be completely dominated by the heavily depleted Southern Hemisphere stocks(s) and North Atlantic fin whales will be classified as endangered even if the IUCN assessment clearly shows that they would qualify for a “least concern” listing if evaluated on an individual basis.
Regarding the CITES listing, NAMMCO concluded in 2006 (NAMMCO 2007a,c) that “on the basis of biological information including population distribution, abundance and stock structure, with reference to CITES criteria A, B and C, the fin whale population in the region of the Central North Atlantic (the EGI stock) did not meet any of the biological criteria for listing under CITES Appendix I (threatened with extinction)”.
In the North Atlantic, the fin whale falls under the management of two international management organisations, NAMMCO and the International Whaling Commission (IWC), for those countries that are members.
Fin whaling for commercial purposes was discontinued in 1986, as a result of the temporary moratorium on commercial whaling instituted by the IWC. In the period 1986-1989, Iceland continued taking a total 292 fin whales for scientific research.
Greenland continued to hunt fin whales under “aboriginal subsistence whaling” quotas, which do not fall under the moratorium.
Iceland withdrew from the IWC in 1992 and rejoined in 2002 with a reservation against the moratorium. Iceland is therefore not bound by the moratorium and resumed harvesting fin whales in 2006.
MANAGEMENT MEASURES IN NAMMCO MEMBER COUNTRIES
The last updated list of laws and regulation in NAMMCO countries regarding hunting of marine mammals (a.o. protection and hunting methods) can be found here.
Faroe Islands – Protected
The Ministry of Fisheries is responsible for the administration of whaling regulations and for coordinating Faroese participation in international scientific and conservation bodies which deal with the management of whale stocks (www.whaling.fo/).
Under Faroese legislation all species of whales are protected with the exception of five species: pilot whales, white-beaked and white-sided dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises (Executive order (Kunngerd) nr. 19, 01-03-1996). The fin whale is therefore protected and cannot been hunted in Faroese waters.
Greenland – Regulated Hunting
Hunting is regulated and administered by the Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture (Greenland 2012), and supervised by the Fisheries Licence Control Authority. Some of the regulations are general to hunting (Home Rule Act no. 12, 29-10-1999, and later amendments in 2001, 2003 and 2008), animal welfare (Home Rule Act no. 25, 18-12-2003), nature protection (Home Rule Act no. 29, 18-12-2003), hunting permits (Executive order nr. 20, 27-12-2003), while others address specifically the hunting of large whales, with as the latest the executive orders nr.11 and 12 both from July 16, 2010. In addition to Greenland Government rules there may also be additional rules set by the municipality.
There is no private ownership of land, sea or living resources. Hunting grounds and game animals are open to harvest and use by Greenlandic citizens, subject to hunting licenses. However, only persons with a full-time occupational hunting license are allowed to hunt large whales, and there are a number of important conditions and limitations, including those related to catch limits, methods of hunting, training and reporting.
Locally, a team of wildlife officers/wardens control hunting and fishing activities, making sure that conservation measures of protected areas and species are observed, and passing on information to the local community. The wildlife officers work in close cooperation with the municipalities, the police, and the Government of Greenland.
The IWC determines the (subsistence) catch quotas for all three large whale species taken in Greenland. The quota year for fin whales goes from January 1 to December 31. If the IWC fails to agree upon a subsistence quota, then Greenland set the quota national means, following advice from the Scientific Committees of the IWC or NAMMCO, partly to secure the food supply and partly to avoid a situation of unregulated hunt in the absence of quotas.
Iceland – Regulated Hunting
Whaling is under the authority of the Icelandic Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. Catch limits are based on advice from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI), on the principle of sustainability and precautionary approach. For further detail see here.
The advice from the MFRI is based on scientific assessments conducted within the Scientific Committees of NAMMCO and the IWC. Catch limits for whales (fin and common minke) used to be set annually, but in 2009, they were set for a 5-year period, with an annual quota of 154 fin whales. In 2015 the quota was only temporary set for two years, 2016 – 2017, because of the lengthy time (8 years) since the last abundance estimate for the sub-areas surrounding Iceland and as long-term advice was not considered feasible until the IWC RMP Implementation Review of North Atlantic fin whales had been completed (NAMMCO 2017). The annual catch limit was 146 fin whales in the WI sub-area. In 2017, MFRI For the period 2018-2025, MFRI advised that annual catch of fin whales should be no more than 161 animals from the East-Greenland/West-Iceland management area (EG/WI) and 48 fin whales from the East-Iceland/Faroes management area (EI/F). More details on the advice can be found here.
Norway – Protected
Whaling is under the authority of the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs.
Norway registered an objection to the International Whaling Commission moratorium on commercial whaling and is thus not bound by it. However Norway stopped hunting fin whales in 1971 and has not resumed.
Nowadays, common minke whales are the only legally hunted whale species and fin whales are therefore protected under Norwegian laws.
Hunting and Utilisation
The fin whale has been the focus of exploitation since the advent of both vessels fast enough to catch them and harpoon guns effective in killing them. See below under Hunting methods for a description of the methods currently used in Iceland and Greenland.
The fin whale has mainly been utilised as a resource of initially oil for industrial purposes until the 1930s and 1940s, and then later more as an important food resource. Bones and offal have traditionally been either discarded or processed and used as fertilizer.
The main parts of the whale anatomy targetted for utilisation have changed over time. In recent times for example, the baleen, originally highly prized, has been redundant, and increasingly as much as possible of the whale has been used for food. The blubber, originally used for oil production, has been of less importance. It is the red muscle – especially the back and side fillets – that are the most desirable sources of meat for human consumption. Utilisation varies between the different NAMMCO countries.
As in the Faroe Islands (see below), fin whales become hunted in the modern whaling era. The tradition for human consumption is therefore relatively recent. Most of the fin whale meat was exported, but ventral groove blubber was sold locally – sour pickled whale blubber – “súr hvalrengi” – being a local delicacy.
The whale meat has always been cheap red meat and compensated for beef in poor people’s diet. The cooking resembles beefsteak cuisine (Ólafsdóttir pers. comm.). Check out the following link for whale recipes from Iceland or click here for other recipes from other countries.
Fin whales were only caught in the Faroe Islands from modern whaling times in the last 1800s, when whaling stations were also developed. There were seven stations in total, the first (Gjanoyri) opening in 1894. After flensing at the whaling station, the blubber was rendered to oil and used for margarine production.
Skeletons and entrails were thrown back to the sea. The meat was used for human consumption, either boiled or fried. The tongue stock, veined with fat, was also used but had to be salted for some days and then boiled and served with horseradish cream sauce (Bloch pers. comm.).
The three major products, meat, blubber and the throat pleats (ventral grooves) constitute almost all of the edible production. The other parts of the whale that are considered edible varies between regions and villages, particularly with respect to the internal organs (e.g. liver, heart and kidneys) and tongue which can vary from being considered a delicacy to being considered inedible. Sometimes, the captain retains the heart and kidney for use by his family. The flukes are considered a delicacy in Illulissat.
The intestines are generally not eaten, but in some places (e.g. Sisimiut) the tongue and intestines may be used to feed dog teams. Greenlandic cooking books offer many recipes for whale meat, but often do not distinguish between whale species and talk just of whale meat.
The hunting of fin whales and other rorquals, using steam powered vessels and exploding harpoons, was pioneered by Norway in the latter half of the 19th century. The main product from the hunt was always the blubber which was rendered into oil at shore stations. The oil in turn was used as lamp oil and in the manufacture of soap and margarine. Most of the production of the Norwegian hunt was exported to other markets. At some shore stations the flayed carcass of the whale was cooked then dried to make a rich fertilizer.
The meat of the fin whale has never been successfully marketed within Norway. However some export of fin whale meat to Japan took place in the 20th century.
The text under this item is extracted and slightly modified from the report of the NAMMCO Expert Group Meeting on Assessment of Whale Killing Data, which met in February 2010 (NAMMCO 2010b). Information on the Greenlandic hunts are also extracted from the Report on Greenlandic Conversion Factors (IWC 2010b).
People’s right to hunt and utilise marine mammals is a firmly established principle in NAMMCO, and hunting conditions and techniques have always been priority issues. Embedded in this right is also an obligation to conduct the hunt in a sustainable way and in such a way that animal suffering is minimized.
Hunting methods depend on the species (size, behaviour) and the habitat. In the North Atlantic, fin whales are currently hunted by two NAMMCO countries, Greenland and Iceland. For animal welfare reasons it is important to achieve a rapid and efficient kill of the targeted whale. This means that both unnecessary suffering and the risk of losing the animal should be minimized. Ideally the animal should become instantly unconscious and insensitive to pain.
Hunting methods for fin whales differ between Greenland and Iceland, but harpoon guns with explosive penthrite grenades are used in both countries.
Harpoon guns as hunting method
A harpoon cannon rigged into the deck of a boat is used to fire a harpoon equipped with an explosive grenade into the body of the whale. The triggering cord is a string with one end attached to the detonator and the other end attached to a small hook. This hook anchors itself to the skin of the whale and, as the harpoon penetrates the body of the whale, the triggering cord unfolds until it tenses and initiates the detonation of the grenade. This way, the grenade explodes deep inside the body of the whale.
The harpoon is attached to a forerunner, which is in turn attached to a winch in the boat. This kind of whaling requires a boat large enough to carry a harpoon cannon. In Greenland, the minimum boat length required for installing a harpoon cannon is 10 m. At the other end of the spectrum, ocean-going vessels 100 m long are used by Japan for whaling offshore and in the Antarctic.
Fin whale hunting is conducted from medium-sized boats that are exclusively used for whale hunting, but are not equipped for flensing the whale nor processing and storing meat and blubber. The hunting grounds are within Iceland’s 200 miles exclusive economic zone ( EEZ), and the whales are towed to the Icelandic land station for flensing and processing.
For the meat to be accepted as edible for human consumption, the whale has to be flensed at the whaling station within 16 hours after its death. Whaling areas shall therefore be close enough to allow the return of the boat in less than 16 hours. In the past, vessels used to tow up to four whales along the side. Nowadays, the vessels only tow up to two whales, both on one side as in the picture below or one on each side.
The boats are equipped with strong winches for hauling the whales, which can load up to 30 tonnes. The hunting weapon used is a 90 mm harpoon gun with 4-claws. Prior to 2009, cast iron grenades filled with black powder (500g) together with (from 1986 on) a modified penthrite grenade with 100g of penthrite fuse were used to kill the whales.
When Iceland resumed fin whale hunting in 2009, a prototype of a modified penthrite grenade with 100 g of pressed penthrite was developed and tested. This prototype which was made of aluminium was lighter than the previous grenades. However, it showed some weaknesses with the head design and the trigger hooks and was replaced by a new prototype penthrite grenade made of steel (Proto 2) in 2010. The back-up weapon is reshooting with a harpoon grenade.
Fin whales are caught in West Greenland, south from Uummannaq, either by two boats each of a minimum length of 9 m working together, or by one boat of a minimum length of 11 m. After the whale is caught, the boats return to land for flensing. Each boat is equipped with one certified harpoon cannon, which is checked every other year.
Fin whales are hunted with 50 mm Kongsberg harpoon guns using harpoons equipped with the Norwegian penthrite grenade (Grenade-99) charged with 30 g of pressed penthrite. The trigger rope for the fin whale grenade is 110 cm (longer than that for minke whales which is 45 cm) and it detonates the grenade 130-140 cm after penetration into the whale body (65 cm for the minke whale). The secondary (back up) weapon is the same as the primary weapon. The gunners shoot in the heart and lung regions by aiming at the area in front of the pectoral fins. During the years 2001 to 2008 it was reported that 20 % of the whales died instantaneously or within 1 minute, and that 40 – 50 % died within 5 minutes.
PAST AND CURRENT HARVEST
Exploitation in the North Atlantic before the 1986 temporary moratorium on whaling
Being much faster than any other whale species, fin whales could not be hunted to any great extent until fast catcher boats (steam ships) and explosive harpoons had been developed as part of commercial whaling in the late 1800s in Norway. These inventions made catches possible and fin whales become heavily exploited in the modern whaling era.
Fin whale catches increased throughout the early 1900s, and reached over 30,000 per year worldwide in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982). Although the vast majority of these was taken in the Southern Hemisphere, fin whales were also considerably depleted in the north. Whaling was banned in Norway in 1904, mainly because of a belief by fishermen that whales herded herring to the coast, thereby making them accessible to them. By this time, however, the stocks off northern Norway were severely depleted (Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982).
Norwegian companies established whaling stations in many areas of the North Atlantic after depleting whale stocks off their own coast (Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982). Whaling stations were established in Iceland, Spitsbergen, the Faroes, the Shetland Islands, the Hebrides and Ireland as well as in Newfoundland. In all areas, the same scenario was repeated: a whaling station was established in a new area, followed by good catches and rapid expansion, followed by declining catches until whaling became unprofitable. In some areas this process took as little as 10 years. In most areas, the initial phase of whaling was over by 1920 (Tønnessen and Johnsen 1982).
Harvesting was especially heavy around Iceland, and led to a noticeable decline in catch rates for fin whales there between 1901 and 1915. (IWC 1989, NAMMCO 2000a,b). The situation was serious enough that it led to Iceland imposing a moratorium on whaling in Icelandic waters in 1915, the first whaling moratorium ever.
When whaling resumed in 1935 west of Iceland the stock appeared to have recovered there, possibly through both natural population growth and immigration from other areas (NAMMCO 2000a,b). Fin whaling resumed in most areas after World War 2. In Norway and the Faroes, whaling continued until 1971 and 1984 respectively, when declining or variable catches and low prices made the operations unprofitable.
In 1986, the IWC instituted a temporary moratorium on commercial whaling, which was then discontinued in Spain and Iceland. Iceland, however, continued to catch fin whales in the period 1986-1989, as a part of a scientific research programme.
Exploitation in the North Atlantic after the 1986 moratorium
Greenland continued hunting fin whales from West Greenland, under an IWC “subsistence whaling” quota of 19 fin whales per year (total quota, i.e., including landed and struck-and-lost whales). Recent harvests have been lower than the quota level (Table below).
In 2006, Iceland (not bound by the IWC moratorium since 2002) resumed hunting fin whales, with a catch of 7 in 2006, then oscillating between 0 and 169 (Table below). No other country in the world presently has a directed harvest of fin whales, except for Japan which started a scientific catch in 2005.
Other Human Impacts
Anthropogenic activities which may affect fin whales can be divided in two main categories: habitat degradation and oceanographic changes. Knowledge about fin whale habitat use is limited and it is therefore difficult to assess the impact that they may represent for the species. At present their relative importance and scale have not been assessed and will vary greatly according to areas and time of the year.
A range of anthropogenic activities has the potential to degrade habitat important to fin whale survival, and may occur both when whales are present and absent. They include:
- entanglement (e.g. in marine debris, fishing gear, etc)
- physical injury and death from vessel collisions (service corridors and shipping lines)
- acoustic pollution with disturbance from low-frequency noise (vessel, seismic survey, military activities)
- changing water quality and pollution (e.g. runoff from agriculture, oil spills)
- prey depletion due to over-harvesting
- human harassment through whale watching programmes
ENTANGLEMENT AND STRIKES
Fin whales commonly lunge feed at or near the surface, which makes them vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement. They are one of the more commonly recorded species of large whale reported as hit by vessels worldwide (Laist et al. 2001, Jensen and Silber 2003) and they are also occasionally caught in fishing gear as incidental catch or by-catch.
In the NAMMCO area, however, entanglement and ship strikes appear as a very minimal threat for fin whales. Over the period 2000–2009 (National Progress Reports, NAMMCO 2001–2010) only one by-catch and one strike have been reported for fin whales. One fin whale was entangled off West Greenland in ropes used in connection with crab traps (Anonym 2004), while the likely strike was caused by a ferry off Iceland (Ólafsdóttir pers. comm.). Reporting of large cetacean by-catch is only mandatory in Greenland and Iceland, but these events get much local attention, probably because they are very rare. The authorities become aware of most cases, if not all, through different channels, such as direct reports to museums and marine institutes or articles in newspapers. In the NAMMCO areas, fin whales are mainly distributed offshore, with little overlap with the main fishing areas, which likely explains the low risk of entanglement.
Noise from seismic exploration, military activities and shipping could affect fin whales directly or indirectly by interfering with their communication, but the effects are not known (IWC 2005). Since fin whales use low frequency sounds to call to females, human interruption through sound waves, such as military sonar and seismic surveys can disrupt the signal sent to the females. This can potentially interfere with mating by preventing mates from meeting and a consequential reduction in birth rates in populations (Croll et al. 2002).
The exact implications of climate change on oceanographic conditions and processes are unknown, as well as their subsequent implications for whales. Reduced productivity of some ecosystems and unpredictable weather events caused by altered ocean water temperatures, changing ocean currents, rising sea levels and reductions in sea ice are predicted as possible consequences of climate change.
Fin whale habitat areas might be affected directly through changes in food availability caused by decreased productivity and/or changed patterns in prey distribution and availability (e.g. Williams et al. 2013). Also, if ocean currents and water temperature influence whale migration, feeding, breeding, and calving site selection, any changes in these factors could render currently used habitat unsuitable.
RESEARCH PROJECTS IN THE WILD
Fin whales, which are largely pelagic and rarely seen in groups near coasts in the NAMMCO area, are difficult to study in the wild. Except for sightings surveys dedicated to large baleen whales, where also fin whales are targeted, there are only a few research projects dedicated to living fin whales. Incidental fin whale sightings are recorded in opportunistic sighting databases in the four NAMMCO countries.
Satellite tagging of fin whales were attempted with more or less success in most countries: Faroe Islands (Mikkelsen et al. 2007), Greenland (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2003) and Iceland (Watkins et al. 1984, 1996). There was at the beginning a limited success in tagging fin whales, but the methodology and the tags have greatly improved and whales are now tagged successfully for example by Greenland and Norway.
Low numbers of fin whales are tagged with satellite transmitters every year in West Greenland by the Greenland Institute of Marine Resources. The main purpose is to use dive data collected from the transmitters to correct visual aerial surveys for the fraction of whales that are submerged during the surveys. The transmission period was about about 5 weeks – not enough to show where the whales go in winter but enough data to show their use of West Greenland and to provide plenty of dive data.
Simon et al. (2010) completed a study, which shed new light on the migratory pattern and habitat use of fin whales in the Davis Strait, between Greenland and Canada. They monitored the whales’ acoustic activity using three bottom-moored acoustic recorders over a 2-year period and showed that the whales are present in the area from June to December and thus migrate south much later than previously believed (See under Migration for more details).
The University of Iceland Research Center in Húsavik in collaboration with the Húsavík Whale Museum conduct a photo-identification project mostly focusing on blue and humpback whales and white sided dolphins, the species most commonly observed in Skjálfandi Bay, but also including fin whales.
During different field projects, the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (IMR) collects biopsy samples and photo-identifications of whales and dolphins, and when opportunity arises also of fin whales (Grønvik et al. 2009, 2010). Biopsies have been collected in the Norwegian Sea and the Barents sea. The last major biopsy collection from fin whales was off Spitsbergen in 2008, a few (2) samples were also taken in 2012 from the same area. All our fin whale samples are analysed at P. Palsbøll’s laboratory at the University of Groeningen. The research effort on biopsy sampling is on humpbacks and minke whales, so sampling of fin whales will become opportunistic (also in the Barents Sea) for now.
The IMR also investigates the spatial associations between rorquals (fin whales included) and their prey, based on ecosystem and fish monitoring surveys performed during summers 2003 to 2017 in Norwegian and adjacent waters. Some results can be found in Skern-Mauritsen et al. ( 2011) and Nøttestad et al (2015).
The Norwegian Polar Institute collects biopsies from fin whales in the Svalbard area to study genetics, diet and pollution issues. Six biopsies were collected in 2017.
The Norwegian Polar Institute and IMR have in cooperation an ongoing project for satellite tagging fin whales in the Svalbard area. In 2018, 5 fin whales were tagged.
RESEARCH PROJECTS CONNECTED TO CATCHES
Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006. The Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) took the opportunity of collecting data from the catch in order to compare with information gained prior to 1990 and initiated a research project on the life history parameters and feeding ecology of fin whales off West Iceland and comparison with previous information”
The objective of the study is to obtain information on the life history parameters (growth and reproduction), feeding ecology and energetics of fin whales from the whaling grounds west of Iceland for comparison to information obtained prior to 1990 (Víkingsson 1990, 1995, 1997, Víkingsson et al. 1988, Lockyer and Sigurjònsson 1992).
Iceland has collected several hundreds of samples between 2006-2015 from commercial catches for information on age, sex, condition, etc., and plans to collect new samples from any future catches. However, there have been no catches in 2016 and 2017.
This study is of special interest due to the observed changes in the ecosystem in Icelandic waters and increased abundance of fin whales in the area in recent years. In connection with this research project the MFRI has established cooperation with several foreign research institutes including the University of Barcelona, University of British Columbia, University of California and Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.
The team from the University of British Columbia for example has focused on the analysis of anatomical features related to engulfment feeding and diving in fin whales, including many structures in the head and thorax including diaphragm, arteries, nerves and muscles in the ventral groove blubber and tongue, esophagus, pharynx, lung and baleen. The aim is two-fold: 1. to understand how rorqual whales have evolved the capacity to engulf extremely large volumes of water containing prey, filter the prey items from the water, and swallow the prey rapidly with total protection of the airway. 2. to explore mechanisms that protect against adverse effects of rapid descent in the ocean that must cause transient pressure gradients in the thorax, vascular system, and lungs.
Analysis, and publication, of the samples and the data collected through all these projects is in progress (Nielsen et al. 2012, Pyenson et al. 2012, Shadwick et al. 2013, Olsen et al. 2014, Vogl et al. 2015).
Research led by the National University Hospital of Iceland focuses on the structure and function of the inner ear of fin whales (National Progress Report Iceland 2018). Some of the inner ear samples have been submitted to a large international study on the effects of acoustic pollution on the hearing of cetaceans.
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