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Distribution and movements of fin whales in the North Pacific Ocean

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• We summarize fin whale Balaenoptera physalus catch statistics, sighting data, mark recoveries and acoustics data. The annual cycle of most populations of fin whales had been thought to entail regular migrations between high-latitude summer feeding grounds and lower-latitude winter grounds. Here we present evidence of more complex and varied movement patterns.

• During summer, fin whales range from the Chukchi Sea south to 35 °N on the Sanriku coast of Honshu, to the Subarctic Boundary (ca. 42 °N) in the western and central Pacific, and to 32 °N off the coast of California. Catches show concentrations in seven areas which we refer to as ‘grounds’, representing productive feeding areas.

• During winter months, whales have been documented over a wide area from 60 °N south to 23 °N. Coastal whalers took them regularly in all winter months around Korea and Japan and they have been seen regularly in winter off southern California and northern Baja California. There are also numerous fin whale sightings and acoustic detections north of 40 °N during winter months. Calves are born during the winter, but there is little evidence for distinct calving areas.

• Whales implanted with Discovery-type marks were killed in whaling operations, and location data from 198 marked whales demonstrate local site fidelity, consistent movements within and between the main summer grounds and long migrations from low-latitude winter grounds to high-latitude summer grounds.

• The distributional data agree with immunogenetic and marking findings which suggest that the migratory population segregates into at least two demes with separate winter mating grounds: a western ground off the coast of Asia and an eastern one off the American coast. Members of the two demes probably mingle in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands area.

• Prior research had suggested that there were at least two non-migratory stocks of fin whale: one in the East China Sea and another in the Gulf of California. There is equivocal evidence for the existence of additional non-migratory groups in the Sanriku-Hokkaido area off Japan and possibly the northern Sea of Japan, but this is based on small sample sizes.

Keywords: Balaenoptera physalus; discovery mark; migratory; resident; whaling

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2009-07-01

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