26 July 2003

Scientific American: Genetic Analysis Revises Tally of Past Whale Populations
"The new analysis only gives a long-term population; essentially, it shows that at some point there must have been enough whales to account for the genetic diversity seen today. 'One of the limitations is that we can't say that in 1600 there were 240,000 whales,' Roman points out, and adds, 'We don't see evidence that they went through a population bottleneck any time recently.' In fact, he and Palumbi checked their results with specialists in ecological computer modeling at the University of British Columbia. Those models suggest that even in 1950, the first year when data is available, the oceans had sufficient resources to support these vast numbers of whales. 'There's food enough,' says Villy Christensen, one of the scientists who conducted that study.

A high historic whale population could have an impact on how scientists presently view the status of whales as an endangered species. The current humpback whale population of around 10,000 is roughly 50 percent of the pre-industrial whaling numbers determined from logbook records. Using the genetic analysis, however, the current population is only 4 percent of what it once was. Palumbi says that with the revised historical estimates, it could be 'on the order of 50 to 100 years' before whales can again be hunted. "

This is very bad news for whalers. If our population estimates have been this wrong then the IWC will just be strengthened in its attitude that further whaling is too dangerous to the existing populations. It's also bad news for the recent meme against the precautionary principle. The population estimates were not understated because of bad science, but because we did not have the scientific and intellectual tools to get it right.

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