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Research takes in 2003
In May 2003 the Marine Research Institute introduced a two-year plan involving limited takes of three whale species for scientific purposes. The original plan assumed a catch of 100 minke whales, 100 fin whales and 50 sei whales in each of the two years of the programme. It has now been decided that in 2003 38 minke whales will be taken in 2003 during 15th August till 30th September, in accordance with the original plan for this period. It is assumed that the programme will be continued next year according to the original plan.

History
Minke whales were caught off Iceland from small boats during most of the 20th Century. Most of this period the catch was limited to few tens of animals annually. During 1977-1985 the annual Icelandic catch was around 200 minke whales. No minke whaling has been conducted in Icelandic waters since the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) temporary ban on commercial whaling took effect in 1986. Minke whales were thus not caught as a part of the Icelandic programme for whale research during 1986-1989.
The first systematic scientific study on minke whales in Icelandic waters was conducted during 1977-1980 and focused on age, growth and reproduction. Studies based on catch data were also made to examine various population parameters such as geographical variation in sex- and size distribution, catch per unit effort etc. Limited research on stock structure of minke whales were also conducted by genetic comparison of samples from the Icelandic catch with that from other areas of the North Atlantic. Studies into the feeding ecology of minke whales off Iceland have been very limited, and the present knowledge in this area is based on analysis of contents of only 68 stomachs collected from the catch and from strandings (after 1985) during 1977-1997.
After the temporary pause in whaling activities in 1985 minke whale research has mainly been confined to estimation of abundance (population size) by regular systematic sightings surveys (see below) while some effort have also been made to examine movements of minke whales be satellite telemetry. As far as possible samples have also been taken from minke whales that have stranded or drowned in fishing gear.

Minke whale abundance
In 1987 the Marine Research Institute, in co-operation with neighbouring countries, initiated a series of regular cetacean sightings surveys in the North Atlantic. These North Atlantic Sightings Surveys (NASS) can be traced back to the Icelandic research programme 1986-1989, but continued after that and to date four NASS surveys have been conducted (1987, 1989, 1995 and 2001). The NASS surveys are probably the most extensive synoptic sightings surveys ever made for wild mammal populations. The Icelandic part of the NASS surveys were designed to obtain as precise abundance estimates as possible for minke and fin whales, except for NASS-89, when sei whales were the main target species.

According to the most recent survey, conducted in 2001, the summer abundance of the Central North Atlantic stock of minke whales is around 67 000 minke whales, thereof 43 000 in the Icelandic continental shelf area. This estimate was agreed by the Scientific Committe of the IWC earlier this year. According to the latest assessment by the Scientific Committe of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) in 1997, the historical catches from this stock have not had any significant impact on the stock size, which is in accordance with the most recent assessment by the IWC conducted in 1990.

Minke whales in a multispecies perspecitve
Results from whale abundance estimates reveal clearly that the minke whale as well as other cetacean species play an essential role in the marine ecosystem in Iceland. Information on the diet of the various whale species is essential in order to estimate their role in the ecosystem. Knowledge on the feeding ecology is however, limited for most whale species in Icelandic waters. In 1997, estimates were published on the consumption of the 12 cetacean species regularly occurring in Icelandic waters, based on the best available information on whale abundance, seasonal occurrence, diet and energy needs (fig. 1). According to these estimates the annual consumption of cetaceans in Icelandic waters is about 6 million tons of food, thereof around 3 million tons of crustaceans, about 1 million ton of squid and about 2 million tons of fishes.
The minke whale is the largest predator in the area both in the sense of total consumption (2 million tons) and consumption of fish (1 million ton). These results are however, based on limited data on food composition of minke whale in Icelandic waters. According to these limited data. krill is about 35% of the diet, capelin 23%, sand-lance 33% and codfishes about 6%. Cod was observed in the minke whale diet but it was not possible to estimate its fraction of the codfishes found in the diet. In this respect slight bias in the estimated fraction of the total fish consumption of 2 million tons is important. If cod is assumed to account for 3% of the minke whale diet, calculation by a multispecies model indicate that changes of the minke whale population may have a considerable impact on the future prospects for cod yield in Iceland. The largest source of uncertainty in these calculations is the diet of the minke whales emphasising further the importance of improving the poor knowledge on minke whale diet in Icelandic waters.

Objectives of the research
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 Icealndic 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.

Operation
Catches will be spread over 9 areas (Fig. 2) around Iceland in proportion to the relative abundance of minke whales according to sighting surveys from recent years. The seasonal and spatial distribution of the whaling is shown in Table 1.
The whaling will be conducted on three boats that will be contracted specially for the operation. The whaling and sampling operation will be led by a cruise leader from the Marine Research Institute according to the sampling scheme of the research programme. Explosive harpoons (penthrite) will be used for ensuring rapid and humane killing of the animals.
The Marine Research Institute will secure that the animals will the handled according to regulations including full utilization of products according to resolutions of the IWC. All potential financial profits of the operation will be used to fund the research programme. The total budget of the operation in 2003 is estimated 35 million Ikr, thereof more than half due to the whaling and sampling.
In addition to employees of the Marine Research Institute, a large number of scientists will participate in the programme. The scientist in charge of the programme is Gísli A. Víkingsson.


The Marine Research Institute, 6. August 2003


Table 1. Seasonal and spatial distribution of minke whaling 2003 (see Fig. 2).

Area
August
Sept./Oct.
Total
1
5
5
10
2
2
2
4
3
2
1
3
4
2
1
3
5
1
1
2
6
2
2
4
8
1
1
2
9
3
3
6
10
2
2
4
Total 2003
20
18
38


Figure 1. Robust estimation of predation of cetaceans in Iceland waters



Figure 2. Area division of Icelandic coastal waters utilized in the programme.

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