Humpback whales in the Arabian Sea facing extinction
The humpback population – already the smallest and most endangered population of humpback whales in the world – is at real risk of extinction due to a combination of entanglement in fishing nets, ship strikes, and the impact of ceaseless coastal development.
Facing a race against time, WWF, the Emirates Wildlife Society in association with WWF (EWS-WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – with major funding support from the US Marine Mammal Commission – brought a host of international experts, researchers and conservationists together in Dubai from 27-29 January 2015 to develop a strategy that would safeguard these whales.
“We don’t know nearly enough about these magnificent whales at the moment to be able to save this population from extinction,” said Rab Nawaz, Director, WWF-Pakistan, who attended the ground breaking meeting. “But by collaborating on new research, we can gather the data needed to design conservation approaches that will help humpback whales to thrive once again in the Arabian Sea.”
Unlike other humpback whale populations, which travel predictable migration routes between high latitude feeding grounds and low latitude breeding areas, the Arabian Sea population does not migrate. Instead, the whales are restricted to the Arabian Sea, with a range including Oman, Iran, Pakistan, and India – although they may also occur in the Gulf and the Red Sea, as well as along the coasts of Yemen, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and the northern Maldives.
Recent genetic analyses indicate that the Arabian Sea humpback whales are the most isolated humpback whale population in the world. Recordings of the songs that males produce during the mating season along with visual observations and stranding reports indicate that the whales breed along the coast of Oman and possibly along the Pakistan and Indian coasts off the Rann of Kutch.
There have been a number of recent sightings of these whales in Pakistani waters along the Baluchistan coast. Unfortunately, there have also been a worrying number of dead whales found stranded on beaches across the region.
The meeting – involving cetacean scientists from Pakistan, Iran, Oman, UAE, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, as well as experts from the UK, USA, South Africa, Italy, and Canada, and representatives from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Convention on Migratory Species, the International Whaling Commission, and national organizations, such as Environment Society of Oman (ESO) and Plan for the Land – discussed the current status of these whales and concluded that research should be undertaken immediately to help design effective conservation measures.
The workshop stressed the need for a regionally collaborative research and conservation programme, including scientific surveys to estimate population size and current distribution, the collection of further information on the whales’ biology and ecology, and the importance of working with different industries to reduce adverse human impacts on these whales.
The participants highlighted that there would be important conservation spin-offs from efforts to protect humpback whales in the region since these would also benefit other large whale species in the northern Indian Ocean, including Blue whales and Bryde’s whales.