Arabian Sea Whales at the 2017 meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission


Last week several ASWN members had the opportunity to attend the Scientific Committee (SC) meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Bled.  A wide range of papers was presented, highlighting the important work conducted by ASWN members and their colleagues over the past year, and leading to renewed IWC endorsement and encouragement of research and conservation efforts in the region. Those present at the meeting took advantage of the opportunity to hold an opportunistic ASWN meeting over a lunch break, and many more informal gatherings over tea, coffee and dinner helped to consolidate relationships and future plans.

Documents highlighting the Arabian Sea were mostly presented in the Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) subcommittee, but additional documents were also presented in the Southern Hemisphere (SH) subcommittee and the Human Induced Mortality (HIM) subcommittee, where it was recommended that by-catch in the Western, Central and Northern Indian Ocean be included in the workplan for the 2018 SC meeting.

The Recommendations resulting from the CMP subcommittee were numerous, endorsing the work that has been conducted and making several recommendations for future research and collaboration in the region.  Watch this site for a full report of the SC meeting and a list of relevant recommendations when the report is finalized.  In the meantime, please click on the links below to download PDF’s of the documents relevant to Arabian Sea whales that were presented at this year’s IWC SC meeting:

SC_67A_CMP_03_rev1_Baleen whale records from India

SC_67A_CMP_05_Arabian Sea humpback and baleen whale sightings from Pakistan

SC_67A_CMP_07_rev1_ASWN progress report

SC_67A_CMP_12_Update on Humpback Whale research in Oman 

SC_67A_CMP_14_Presence of humpback whales in the Persian Gulf

SC_67A_CMP_15_Ensemble Niche modeling of humpback whale habitat in the Arabian Sea

SC_67A_HIM_03_AIS and modeling to mitigate ship strikes in Sri Lanka

SC_67A_HIM_11_Large Whale Entanglements from Sri Lanka

SC_67A_SH_13_Sperm whales in the Arabian Sea

The Arabian Sea Humpback Whale Infographic is ready for distribution!


After months of planning, ASWN members have finalized an infographic designed to raise awareness of the unique nature of Arabian Sea Humpback whales and the urgent conservation challenges they face.  The infographic was made possible with financial support from the Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF, and was designed by Agenda 28 in consultation with all ASWN members.

The infographic is available in several formats:

The designers have also been generous enough to share the adobe illustrator files with us.  If any ASWN members would like access to these  in order to create versions of the infographic in a different target language, please contact Gianna Minton –, and we will  provide a google drive link for download.

We hope that members will be able to share this with many different types of stakeholders – including government agencies responsible for conservation management, fisheries managers, port authorities and other industries that impact the marine environment, NGO’s, schools, and many others.


A focus on ship strikes and whales in the Arabian Sea

Two recent publications highlight the risk of ship strikes to Arabian Sea whale populations.


Sperm whale with severe damage incurred by ship propellers. Photo courtesy of Chris Johnson, WWF Australia

The first is a fact sheet, hot off the press from WWF International.  It draws on the International Whaling Commission’s Strategic  Plan to Mitigate the Impacts of Ship Strikes on Cetaceans, and highlights 10 key areas where the overlap of heavy shipping traffic and whale occurrence leads to a high risk to the whale populations in question.  The document draws attention to Arabian Sea humpback whales, and makes a number of recommendations for mitigation measures.  We hope that this can be a useful tool for ASWN members to use in raising awareness of the risk of ship strikes to ASHW and other Arabian Sea whale populations, and working with industry and government to help mitigate this threat.

The second is a paper titled Predicting cetacean distributions in data poor marine ecosystems that describes how 12 years of data on blue whale distribution in relation to oceanographic features off of California can be used to predict blue whale distribution in the Northern Indian Ocean.  The paper then discusses how this can be used to develop effective mitigation of ship strikes and other threats in the NIO.  Text from the press release linked to this paper is pasted below.

For  more information on ship strikes and cetaceans, please also look at the IWC website focusing on this issue.

Data on Blue Whales off California Helps Protect their Distant Relatives

 Research identifies blue whale habitat in the Northern Indian Ocean

Scientists know a great deal about blue whales off California, where the endangered species has been studied for decades.

But they know far less about blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean, where ships strike and kill some of the largest animals on Earth.

Now a research team has found a way to translate their knowledge of blue whales off California and in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean to the other side of the world, revealing those areas of the Northern Indian Ocean where whales are likely to be encountered. The team of scientists from NOAA Fisheries and the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project published the findings this week in the journal Diversity and Distributions.

The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission included the results of the study when assessing a shift in busy shipping lanes off the south coast of Sri Lanka that will reduce the danger to whales in an important feeding area.

“Small changes in shipping routes can be a very effective way to address a serious conservation issue with minimal inconvenience to the shipping industry, but rely on a good understanding of the relationship between whale distribution and habitat,” said Russell Leaper, a member of the Scientific Committee. “This study makes an important contribution towards that understanding.”

To meet requirements of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA Fisheries regularly conducts marine mammal and ecosystem assessment surveys. Surveys off the U.S. West Coast and in the eastern tropical Pacific have shown that the upwelling of deep ocean water rich in nutrients supports dense patches of krill that blue whales feed on.  This information has proven critical in addressing the emerging problem of ships striking blue whales, and has informed the management of ship traffic to and from the busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to mitigate this problem.

“We are fortunate in the United States to have some of the best marine mammal data sets in the world,” said Jessica Redfern, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., and lead author of the new study. “It was exciting to explore how we could use these data sets to aid conservation efforts in parts of the world where few data exist.”

The research developed computer models of blue whale habitat off the U.S. West Coast and in the eastern tropical Pacific, including upwelling and underwater topography that affects areas of krill concentration. The models then identified similar upwelling and feeding regions in the Northern Indian Ocean that are also likely to be important habitat for the endangered species.

“The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project has spear-headed efforts to draw attention to and mitigate the risk of ships striking blue whales in Sri Lankan waters. To best protect this species in this data-limited region, it is essential to adapt approaches developed in other parts of the world. Our collaboration achieves just that,” said Asha de Vos, founder of the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project and a coauthor on the study.

The Northern Indian Ocean and its inhabitants have not been surveyed to the same extent as the eastern Pacific Ocean, and much of the information about whale distributions comes from Soviet whaling several decades ago. However, the model results matched up well with the limited information available, the scientists reported.

The model suggests that the distribution of blue whales in the Northern Indian Ocean may shift seasonally, following their food as monsoon climate patterns alter the most productive habitat. The scientists concluded that research and monitoring is critical in the areas identified as blue whale habitat in the Northern Indian Ocean because many of these areas overlap with some of the busiest shipping routes in the world.

“Marine mammals face threats from human activities in most of the world’s oceans, but we lack the data needed to address these threats in many areas,” Redfern said.  “The data collected aboard our surveys allow us to predict species habitat in other parts of the world.  Understanding species habitat allows us to address conservation problems that are often unexpected and critical to maintaining healthy populations.”

Read the publication:

Redfern et al., 2017. Predicting cetacean distributions in data-poor marine ecosystems. Diversity and Distributions Diversity and Distributions, 1– 15. 

Learn more:

Cetacean Habitat and Risk Assessment Program, Marine Mammal and Turtle Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center


New papers highlight the unique and vulnerable status of Arabian Sea humpback whales and the results of satellite tagging of whales in the Indian Ocean


Figure from Kershaw et al. 2017 demonstrating how Arabian Sea humpback whales were the  most genetically differentiated among the 7 breeding stocks sampled in the study.

Recently two scientific papers have been published that are of great value to our understanding of humpback whales in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.  The first is a review of 3575 genetic samples collected from seven breeding stocks of humpback whales in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  The study titled “Multiple processes drive genetic structure of humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) populations across spatial scales” was published in Molecular Ecology.   One of the largest genetic studies ever conducted on humpback whales for the purpose of clarifying management decisions, it revealed more connectivity between the breeding stocks on the east and west sides of the African continent than expected.  Conversely. the results indicate that the Arabian Sea humpback whale population (ASHW) is the most highly genetically differentiated across all indices and partitions.  The paper uses samples collected off the coast of Oman in 2001 and 2002, and places them in a wider context than some of the previously published papers using these same samples.  The wider comparison confirms the unique and precarious nature of Arabian Sea humpback whales, and the authors recommend that the small population numbering fewer than 200 whales be made a conservation priority. The paper has been highlighted in  Science Daily  and Tech Times.   A full PDF of the paper can be downloaded here.



Figure from Cerchio et al 2016, showing tracks of humpback whales satellite tagged off two sites in Madagascar. Note the unexpected movement of one whale to a position north of the Equator off the coast of Somalia.


The second paper of note is titled “Satellite telemetry of humpback whales off Madagascar reveals insights on breeding behavior and long-range movements within the southwest Indian Ocean“.  Published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series, it reports on the results of  23 humpback whales that were satellite-tagged off the northeast and southwest coasts of Madagascar during peak breeding season.  The study reveals interesting sex differences in the behaviour of tracked whales, and indicates that there may be less mixing between the two study sites in Madagascar than would previously have been assumed. Of particular interest for the ASWN, is the track of one individual that moved north from the tagging site off Madagascar, crossing the equator and reaching the coast of Somalia before the tag stopped transmitting at 2° 59.9’ N. During 32 days the male whale covered over 2800 km (over 3120 km of trackline).  Given the genetic evidence showing a lack of mixing between humpback whales in the Southern Indian Ocean  and the Arabian Sea, the authors suggest that this whale may be a “vagrant” or that its movements may represent a new wave of northward exploration and possible expansion taking place as Southern Hemisphere populations increase following the cessation of whaling. A full PDF of the paper can be downloaded here.


Fishermen in Pakistan free entangled humpback whale

Video of the entangled whale, that was freed by a WWF-Pakistsan trained captain of a tuna vessel.

The WWF-Pakistan led programme to train fishing captains in how to report whale sightings and free accidentally entangled wildlife from their nets is yielding more and  more valuable information and saving the lives of endangered whales.

On the morning of December 13th, a 10.5 m long Arabian Sea humpback whale was found entangled in a monofilament net that the Al-Mustafah fishing boat had set on the previous night.  Captain Nakhuda Sajan put out a call for help to nearby fishing vessels, and the tuna vessel, Al-Jihad, captained by Saeed Badsha, a WWF-Pakistan trained fisherman, immediately rushed to the scene and safely released the whale.

The WWF-Pakistan programme is led by ASWN members Rab Nawaz and Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Advisor (Marine Fisheries), WWF-Pakistan and Chairman of Pakistan Whale and Dolphin Society.  In the past three  months alone, the programme has yielded 22 confirmed sightings of Arabian Sea humpback whales off the coast of Pakistan (involving an estimated 43 individual whales). It has also provided sightings of Bryde’s whales, and the release of a bottlenose dolphin and a turtle.

Prior to the launch of this programme, the only clues to the current distribution and population status of Arabian Sea humpback whales outside of Oman were the catch positions of 242 whales illegally hunted by the Soviets in the 1960’s.  Mapping the locations of these recent fishermen-reported sightings will help ASWN members determine where to focus future research efforts that will include photo-identification, genetic sampling, and possibly satellite tagging.   This research is urgently  needed to learn how the whales present off Pakistan are related to whales that have been studied off the coast of Oman over the past 16 years, and how  many whales are left after the intensive hunting by the Soviets.

The programme is well-publicized, and media coverage in various newspapers (such as the Pakistan Daily Times, and the International News) and television coverage is helping to increase awareness of Arabian Sea humpback whales and their conservation status.

The ASWN plans to organize regional capacity building meetings to replicate this successful programme in other parts of the Arabian Sea Humpback whale range.  Watch this space!

Arabian Sea humpback whales feature in Pakistan Daily Times

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The locations of three recently reported humpback whale sightings in Pakistan, and a photograph taken by the fishing vessel captains who reported the sightings.  More details in the link to the Pakistan Daily Times newspaper article below.

Since 2014, WWF Pakistan has been leading a fisheries observer programme that trains fishing vessel captains to record and share their sightings of high conservation value marine wildlife, such as turtles and whales.  This month, vessel captains have reported a  number of sightings of Arabian Sea humpback whales, with some sightings being supported by photos and video.  This is an incredibly valuable source of data from a part of the Arabian Sea where we know whales were hunted in the 1960’s, but where no formal research has taken place since then to confirm their continued presence in the area.

These sightings featured in this article  in the Daily Times of Pakistan.  This press is great to raise awareness of Arabian Sea humpback whales and the threats they face in the region, and will hopefully encourage more fishing vessel captains and members of the public to record and report their whale sightings.  Kudos to ASWN  members, Moazzam Khan and Rab Nawaz for leading this successful programme and sharing its valuable results.

Additional press coverage included multiple spots on Pakistani TV news and:



Arabian Sea humpback whales are one of only four populations still considered Endangered under the United States revised Endangered Species Act listing.

The following statement was posted by WWF International:  and is copied here below:

Following an extensive review process that started in 2009 and was finalized in September 2016, the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has revised the status of humpback whale populations around the world under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The modified listing recognizes the Arabian Sea population as one of only four humpback whale populations around the globe that is not recovering from historical whaling, and is at high risk of extinction without serious conservation efforts.noaa-map-of-new-humpback-dpssMap showing the 14 humpback whale Distinct Population Segments (DPS) now recognized under the United States’ Endangered Species Act.  Of the four populations that remain Endangered, the Arabian Sea population (number 14 on this map), is considered the most distinct and the most likely to become extinct without conservation intervention.  Source:

A Biological Review Team examined hundreds of scientific studies and reports that demonstrate how the majority of humpback whale populations around the world are increasing following the International Whaling Commission’s ban on commercial hunting of this species in 1966.  Careful consideration led to the designation of fourteen “Distinct Population Segments” (DPS), nine of which are no longer considered to be in immediate danger of extinction, and have thus been “de-listed”.  A DPS is treated equivalent to a species under the ESA.

The notice states: “The Arabian Sea DPS faces unique threats, given that the whales do not migrate, but instead feed and breed in the same, relatively constrained geographic location. Energy exploration and fishing gear entanglements are considered likely to seriously reduce the population’s size and/or growth rate, and disease, vessel collisions, and climate change  are likely to moderately reduce the population’s size or growth rate….. The…. Arabian Sea DPS [is] in the ‘at high risk of extinction’ category.”

However, five populations have not shown the same signs of increase toward recovery, and are still listed as Endangered or Threatened.  Of these, the Arabian Sea population is the smallest, most distinct, and most at risk.  Its range is believed to extend from the coasts of Yemen and Oman in the west to Iran, Pakistan and India in the east.

The Biological Review Team that conducted the 6-year long review process considered evidence from the Arabian Sea that includes information on illegal hunting of whales by Soviet whaling fleets in the 1960’s, fifteen years’ worth of dedicated whale research off the coast of Oman, and a few opportunistic sightings and strandings of whales along the coasts of Pakistan and India.  Data from Oman provide evidence that the population is extremely small, numbering fewer than 100 individuals, and confirm the Soviet whalers’ speculation that Arabian Sea humpback whales comprise the only non-migratory population of humpback whales in the world.  Genetic evidence shows the population to be distinct and no longer in breeding contact with any other humpback whale populations in the Indian Ocean.

These factors, coupled with ever-increasing threats from entanglement in fishing gear, strikes by vessels in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and noise from shipping, coastal development and offshore oil and gas exploration, are cause for serious concern.  The population also has high levels of liver abnormalities and skin disease, which may render them more vulnerable to other diseases or stressors. Furthermore, this non-migratory population, restricted to the “cul de sac” of the Arabian Sea, has no alternative feeding or breeding grounds should climate change or an environmental disaster on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon irrevocably change the dynamics of their limited habitat.


Entangled humpback whale off the coast of Oman

While the Endangered Species Act most directly affects whales present within US waters, it also applies on the high seas to any vessels or persons under US jurisdiction.  The notice states that while the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) provide significant protections to all large whales, there are no formalized governmental or inter-governmental conservation efforts for the Arabian Sea humpback whale.  To address the lack of coordinated effort to save this population from extinction, whale researchers and conservation organisations from Arabian Sea range states have joined together in the Arabian Sea Whale Network.  Very much a grass-roots initiative, this network strives to support whale research and conservation efforts in the region.  Together with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), The Environment Society of Oman and the US Marine Mammal Commission, WWF has played a critical role in supporting the formation of this network.

Network members in Pakistan, India, Oman and Iran are conducting research to better describe the range and status of the population and working with local stakeholders to mitigate threats, but they lack sufficient funding.  As a result, we know almost nothing about the whales’ current distribution, numbers, or specific habitat needs in their suspected range outside of Oman. Funding is also needed at a regional level to support training and awareness-raising at all levels, and to better coordinate collaborative research and conservation work. Overall, without significant governmental efforts and stakeholder involvement to reduce the threat of whale entanglement in fishing gear along all the coastlines of its range and to address the risk of ship-strike in corridors of high shipping activity, the outlook for the Arabian Sea humpback whale population looks bleak.  Only through collaboration by governments, NGO’s, IGO’s, industry and other relevant stakeholders can we hope to overcome the odds, as has recently been demonstrated by the ongoing efforts to conserve gray whales in the western Pacific.

For more information, contact Arabian Sea Whale Network coordinator Gianna Minton  ( or look at our website: