Genetics as a window to the past: How many whales before whaling?

Steve Palumbi, Ph.D.
Hopkins Marine Station

Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Pacific Forum 3:00 p.m.

All conservation and management efforts in the sea depend on some knowledge of past populations. Knowing how many individuals existed, past productivity and environmental carrying capacity can alter plans for present-day exploitation and how the future is charted. While whaling records have been used to reconstruct the past populations of great whales, these records are fragmentary and sometimes misleading. We are pioneering the use of genetic tools to bridge the past and estimate the number of whales before whaling. The results suggest that whaling records severely underestimate past abundances. In fact, prior to whaling, there were approximately ten times more whales than previously thought. This dramatic shift in the number of proposed whales parallels similar conclusions for other large consumers such as turtles, sharks, tuna and swordfish, and indicate the oceans of the past were very different places than they are today.

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