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Webinar: Commercial Marine Mammal Studies in Chukotka over the Past 25 Years

Arctic.ru has hosted a webinar devoted to commercial marine mammal studies in Chukotka. Denis Litovka, PhD (Biology), head of the Marine Mammal Studies Department at the Pacific Scientific Research Fisheries Center Chukotka Division, spoke about the changes in the Arctic species of these animals in Chukotka over the past 25 years and research methods used in the region.

During the webinar, Denis Litovka gave a presentation and replied to questions from the audience.

Is satellite monitoring data on tagged whales available online? And is it possible to track their movement in real time?

Unfortunately, not. This was done in 2005-2006. All data are provided in the corresponding article. After that, another interesting project was carried out in Sakhalin, where two grey whales were tagged. I know one of them is a mature female called Varya (which is also my mother's name). She made a revolution in biology or ichthyology, upending everything that was known about the populations and geographical isolation of grey whales. That is to say, she travelled from Sakhalin to California, then, in the spring, she moved north to British Columbia, frolicking around there, and then returned to Sakhalin. Scientists always thought that those were different populations, but they were wrong. Genetic analysis also suggested that populations can mix. All of these studies have been published and are available for reading. Our research was carried out in 2005-2006.

How many people are involved in Chukotka research projects?

I have three and half associates working in my lab — "half" because one of them also works in another lab. I don't know how many come to Chukotka each year. This is difficult to estimate as I don't work in the migration service. This also refers to experts on marine mammals. We invite two to four associates each year — eight people in all.

Is toxicological analysis used to allow or ban whaling by the indigenous peoples of the north?

This is an interesting and tricky question, because we do not study stinky whales. Indigenous people do not use them as food. This species should be studied in the whaling process but it isn't possible, because a field lab is required for this purpose, which is expensive. Nevertheless, there are scientists and veterinarians there who decide whether it is edible or not. Today, they are almost not caught at all. Hunters have learned to smell them, feel their breath and bypass them. Only a couple of years ago, about 10 such whales were caught each year. When this kind of whale was caught, a formal certificate was issued stating that was is inedible. Then a special commission drew up its own document and the whale was destroyed. After that it was excluded from the quota. That was the procedure.

Do you receive requests from oceanariums and dolphinariums to help select marine mammals for them?

We did, but this is not part of our purview. In 2001, beluga collectors came. They were also going to catch walruses. I flatly refused, because biology is one thing and whaling in another. Dolphinariums and oceanariums get in touch with our center in Vladivostok and we certainly help them.

You said that at one time marine mammals had not been studies for about 20 years. How has the situation changed compared to what it was in the past and how has the population of marine mammals changed? Has it declined or increased? Or maybe they have moved elsewhere?

I probably did not make myself clear. It is not that no studies had been conducted for 20 years, but a lack of infrastructure and high operating costs lead to… It would seem that this is one species, one population, but two or three countries need to work simultaneously, in parallel and under the same research methodology. Can you imagine? Despite the language barriers, we meet and do joint studies on walruses, beluga whales and seals.

What was done on walruses in 2005 was done after a 20-year hiatus. Such studies should be conducted every five years. We are now trying to use a different procedure to estimate the number of walruses — not aerial counts, not aboard icebreakers and without satellite tagging. A different methodology is used today.

Unlike the walrus, the other seven species are in relatively good shape. Cetaceans are growing and the number of grey whales has recovered.

A question about international cooperation. With what countries do you have the most effective research projects? What countries are the most actively involved?

Everything depends on the species. Here is a simple example. In the fall of 1998, the Canadians tagged beluga whales with satellite transmitters in the Beaufort Sea. They thought the belugas would stay there but they moved 800 km north across pack ice. The Canadians thought that they would change their minds and return or move to the east. But no, they moved west, bypassed Wrangel Island, entered the Bering Strait, and when they were near our shores the transmitter batteries ran out. The Canadians initialized these studies because the beluga whale is a staple for the indigenous peoples of Canada. The bowhead whale and the narwhal are second and third.

A question about the population of beluga whales. Are there any plans to introduce a special conservation status for the Anadyr population of belugas?

I don't think so. We are currently studying it. First, the man-made impact on it is minimal. It is absolutely safe in the Gulf of Anadyr. Further east, Alaskan and Canadian belugas are caught. I hear there were plans to change the conservation status of the grey whale, its California population, and actually strike it off the red book, because its population has grown and exceeded the optimal number.

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