Regular systematic research on behalf of the MRI was formally initiated in 1979 with the establishment of a full time whale specialist position at the institute. Before that, British scientists had conducted research on whales for around a decade in cooperation with the MRI.
MRI's research has mostly been directed at the whale species that were exploited upto IWC's temporary ban on commercial whaling (moratorium) took effect in 1986, i.e fin whales, sei whales and minke whales.
During 1986-1989 an extensive whale research programme was conducted by the MRI with the main objective of strengthen the basis for management advice before IWC's reconsideration of the moratorium, which was originally scheduled to be finished in 1990 at latest. The research programme was extensive, and constituted a milestone in our knowledge of the biology and ecology of cetaceans in Icelandic waters. In cooperation with adjacent states in the North Atlantic, large scale sightings surveys were conducted in 1987 and 1989, providing the first reliable estimates of the abundance of the exploited species in the central and eastern parts of the North Atlantic. As a part of the research programme 292 fin whales and 70 sei whales were caught for various biological investigations during the four year study period. These studies included research on biological parameters (age, growth, reproduction etc.), feeding ecology, population genetics and energetics. Apart from MRI employees, many Icelandic and foreign scientists made use of the research facilities and conducted studies on subjects as diverse as evolution, parasitology, physiology and medical science.
Since the conclusion of the four year research programme in 1990, MRI's main cetacean research activities have been in the following fields:
- Sightings surveys are the largest research projects conducted in the field of whale research. In order to monitor population size in connection with management it is generally considered appropriate to estimate abundance every 5-6 years. During 1995 and 2001 large scale surveys were conducted on the North Atlantic comparable to those in 1987 and 1989.
- Research on population structure and behaviour by the aid of photo-identification and skin biopsy sampling. At the MRI these techniques have been applied in research on killer whales since 1981 and humpback whales and blue whales since 1990.
- Research on harbour porpoises and white-beaked dolphins that have drowned in fishing gear (bycatch). This includes studies on feeding ecology, reproduction, age composition, population genetics and energetics.
- Strandings. Monitoring and biological sampling of cetaceans that have stranded or beached on the coast of Iceland. As whaling has only involved a small part of the species found in Icelandic waters, this is the only opportunity for sampling of many species.
- Feeding ecology and multi-species modeling. Although information is scarce on feeding ecology of most of the 12 species regularly occurring in Icelandic waters, information on biomass and residence time gives indications of total consumtion by cetaceans in Icelandic waters, and possible effects on the yield of commercially important fish species.
- Tracking the movements of baleen whales by satellite telemetry. In the last few years experiments have been conducted on the use of satellite linked tags to follow the movements and dive pattern of minke, fin and blue whales in Icelandic waters.
- Seasonal variation in the distribution of cetaceans in coastal Icelandic waters. In 1999, an agreement was made between the MRI and a few whale watching firms on systematic registration of information on cetaceans seen during whale watching trips.
In August 2003 a comprehensive research project on minke whales in Icelandic waters was initiated. This research is a part of a larger research proposal reviewed by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in June 2003. In the original proposal annual takes of 100 minke, 100 fin and 50 sei whales were assumed for a period of 2 years. In August 2003 the part of the proposal concerning minke whales was initiated involving a catch of 38 animals for research purposes. Another part of the program initiated in September 2003 is aerial survey in Icelandic waters.
The main objectives of the research that now has been decided to conduct is to collect basic information on the feeding ecology of minke whale in Icelandic waters. In addition to studies on the diet composition by analysing the stomach contents, other data that is essential for estimation of minke whale predation on various prey species will be collected. These include research on the energetics, food requirements and seasonal and spatial variation in whale abundance. The multispecies model that is being applied at the Marine Research Institute and includes cod, capelin and shrimp will be further developed by incorporating minke whales for estimation of the ecological interactions of these species.
The following secondary objectives of the research will be:
- To investigate the stock structure of the minke whale in the North Atlantic by genetic methodology and satellite telemetry.
- To investigate parasites and diseases in the minke whale in Icelandic waters.
- To collect information on age and reproduction of minke whales in Icelandic waters.
- To investigate the concentration of organochlorines and trace elements in various organs and tissue types.
Finally the applicability of various alternative research methods will be estimated by comparison to the more traditional methods.