Arctic Whales and Sea Ice

“Beginning in the mid-1970s, John Bockstoce, an ethnologist, historian, and major Arctic explorer, and I have worked together on the reconstruction of the history of the whaling of bowhead whales as well as the change in the population of these whales.  John found the logbooks from 20% of all the voyages ever made to hunt the Bowhead. Each day at noon, the first mate would record in the ship’s logbook the weather, sea and sea ice conditions, the location of the ship, and the number of whales seen, chased, caught, and killed.  This commercial whaling lasted from 1849 to 1914. We had the daily logbook entries digitized, resulting in 65,000 days of observations of whaling and 23,000 days of observation of sea ice. We used these to provide a unique history of the population dynamics of a major mammalian species and of sea ice.

At times, an adjunct to this work let me attend the meetings of the International Whaling Commission, which included a team of scientists who tried to project the population changes in all whales and other marine mammals, using mathematical models.

I had also begun my work on whales in 1973, when the then-recently-formed U.S. Marine Mammal Commission (created by the U. S. 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act) came to me soon after, saying that they could not understand what the statement of the primary goal of the Act meant.  This goal was that each marine mammal should be managed to reach an “optimum sustainable population.” They said they could not understand what this “optimum sustainable population” could mean from a scientific point of view, and provided a contract for me to read the Act and provide my explanation.  I invited my already long-term friend and colleague, Matt Sobel, to join me in doing this analysis, as he was an applied mathematician who had worked in EPA (before that agency had that name) on a variety of environmental topics. He had also taught at business schools, and therefore had an understanding of the practicality of formal statements which exceeded mine. We did an analysis, explaining what the words of the Act allowed and limited to the meaning of an “optimum Sustainable Population,” as seen in the report below.

Our concern grew in the 21st century over the possibility of global warming, leading to major declines in Arctic sea ice. Bockstoce and I realized that we had a relevant set of data, because bowheads tend to feed at the ice age because at sea ice edge, there is a seawater upwelling that brings nutrients to the surface and stimulates the growth of the marine organisms these whales eat. Therefore, the whalers would have sailed very much of the time along the sea ice. We were able to extend knowledge of the distribution of sea ice in the North Pacific and farther north from the mid-19th century to the beginning of the 20th century.

The research and publications that Bockstoce and I did on the bowhead whale has had considerable influence, and is probably the longest single record of the harvest of any marine wildlife as well one of the best reconstructions of the population history- numbers and geographic distribution- of a marine animal.”

– Dan Botkin

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