Two new papers reveal important insights into whales in the Northern Indian Ocean

Last week two new papers were published revealing important information about feeding and parasites in blue whales off Sri Lanka and humpback whale song off the Goan coast of India.  Read the full abstracts of these papers below:

de Vos A, Faux CE, Marthick J, Dickinson J, Jarman SN. 2018. New Determination of Prey and Parasite Species for Northern Indian Ocean Blue Whales. Frontiers in Marine Science, 5.

Press release: A study on the diet of Northern Indian Ocean blue whales has just been published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science. The study revealed that while globally blue whale populations feed predominantly on Euphausiidae (krill), Northern Indian Ocean blue whales feed predominantly on Sergestid shrimps. This demonstrates that blue whales can locate and feed on dense swarms of other types of prey when they occur. Within the Indian Ocean, sergestids are present in the top 300 m of the water column, which correlates with the deep scattering layer in the area. This need to dive deeper in search of prey likely explains the prevalence of fluke up diving amongst blue whales in Sri Lankan waters relative to other parts of the world.

This study also found the presence of Acanthocephalan parasites in the stomach and intestines of the Northern Indian Ocean blue whales. While these parasites have previously been recorded in other ocean basins, this is the first record for this region. This finding highlights the need for further studies on parasitic flora and long-term monitoring of health of these cetaceans for their proper management and conservation.

The lead author, Dr. Asha de Vos, founder of The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project the flagship project of Oceanswell was particularly excited about the implications of this finding. She said, “These findings highlight the need to continue long-term research efforts, study and evaluate species within their habitat ranges, understand their behavioural adaptations, and tailor-make management and conservation decisions based on their needs”. Co-author Dr. Simon Jarman from Curtin University and CSIRO further added, “Analysis of DNA from environmental samples can generate a lot of new ecological knowledge. This is a nice example of the sorts of information we can uncover with molecular analyses.”    To learn more about this research please contact Dr. Asha de Vos; Founder, Oceanswell: asha@oceanswell.org

Shyam Kumar Madhusudhana, Bishwajit Chakraborty & G. Latha (2018):
Humpback whale singing activity off the Goan coast in the Eastern Arabian Sea, Bioacoustics, DOI: 10.1080/09524622.2018.1458248

This paper also discusses the relevance of this study in relation to the wider Arabian Sea humpback whale population:  “Formal collaborative studies in the Arabian Sea region are in their early stages. Cursory comparison of vocalizations from this study with those collected off Oman from the same year provides some indication of shared themes (2017 email exchanges between S Madhusudhana and researchers S Cerchio, AJ Willson and MS Willson studying humpback whales along the coast of Oman; unreferenced, personal communication); however, this requires further dedicated analysis. These preliminary findings concur with comparison of historical song samples between Hallaniyat Bay in Oman and Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar that were found to have ‘virtually the same content’ (Whitehead 1985). Understanding regional transmission of song patterns is considered as a gateway to evaluating the connectivity between humpback whales in the Arabian Sea, and considered a priority for conservation management measures (Minton et al. 2015). Further collaboration on evaluation of song structure between these data-sets is warranted.”
Watch this space for the next steps in this exciting story that started with the recording of humpback whale song on both sides of the Arabian Sea in the early 1980s!

ASWN Data Platform Workshop Report now available

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In January 2018, a number of ASWN members gathered in Muscat for a workshop focusing on the final stages of development and capacity building for the creation of the ASWN regional data platform. The platform is being developed with Wild Me/Flukebook, and should be ready for wider use throughout the network within the next few weeks.

A full (illustrated!) report of the workshop is available for download here.   The report includes:

  • summaries of research  updates from several ASWN range states;
  • descriptions of the new data platform and its evolving features;
  • summaries of discussions on how to incorporate fisheries stakeholders in data collection efforts for cetacean conservation in the region.

The report will be shared as a ‘For Information’ paper at the upcoming meeting of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee, as well as with the Scientific Council of the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), which is following the progress of conservation efforts in relation to the CMS Concerted Action on Arabian Sea humpback whales.

Luban completes her return journey back to the coast of Oman

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Map depicting Luban’s journey from the time she was fitted with a satellite tag in November 2017 through March 2018, when she returned to her original tagging  site.  Image and full animation below courtesy of Andrew Willson/Five Oceans Environmental Services/Environment Society of Oman.

Luban, the first Arabian Sea humpback whale to have been documented crossing from Oman to India, has now completed a return journey, and is once again swimming in the waters around Masriah Island where she was originally tagged in November 2017.   Luban’s tag has been transmitting signals for over 17 weeks and continues to transmit as of March 19th, 2018. Luban was first photographed and identified in the Gulf of Masirah in October 2002.   Fifteen years later, she was tagged  in the same location during a survey conducted under the auspices of the Environment Society of Oman and in collaboration with Five Oceans Environmental Services, local government entities and other partners.  After spending a few weeks engaged in small-scale movements in the Gulf of Masirah, she suddenly headed offshore and crossed the Arabian Sea to a location just off the coast of Goa, India.  She then made her way south, and spent several weeks between Trivandrum and Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India.

Researchers in India affiliated with the ASWN mobilized all their forces and twice rushed to the areas of coastline where Luban’s most recently transmitted signals had originated.  There they collaborated with local academics, fishermen, various local authorities and the Indian coastguard with whom they surveyed south of Cochin .  The team worked with these partners to search for Luban at sea and try to better understand what might be attracting her to the area as well as what threats she might be facing there. Researchers interviewed fishermen and learned that they frequently see and hear whales in an area called Wadge bank, known to be a rich fishing ground in the deep waters between India and Sri Lanka.

Approximately twelve weeks after being tagged, Luban began to make her way north along the west coast of India, until she headed offshore again – westward across the Arabian Sea and back to her starting point in the Gulf of Masirah. This incredible crossing reveals an important aspect of Arabian Sea humpback whale behaviour and proves the need for collaboration between Arabian Sea range states to protect this Endangered population.  However, as is the case with so much scientific research, answering one question (do Arabian Sea humpback whales move between Oman and other countries in their range?), leads to a whole host of new questions: Is Luban’s behaviour typical of the whole population – with this journey representing the first time a satellite tag has lasted long enough to document it?  Or is it only females who make these longer range movements?  Or is Luban an unusual lone explorer?  What was she looking for in India – feeding opportunities?  Mating opportunities?  Did she find them?……These questions and countless others provide good incentive for the Arabian Sea Whale Network to continue our collaboration and support each other in our efforts to learn more about these intriguing whales and how to protect them.

Stay tuned!!

Arabian Sea humpback whales are considered Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and are featured as a Conservation Project by the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG).  Read more background about Luban’s crossing and regional collaboration on the IUCN CSG website here.  To learn more about the Environment Society of Oman’s Renaissance whale and dolphin project click here.

ASWN Data platform workshop hosted in Oman

 

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Participants to the first day of the ASWN workshop titled  “Managing data for whale conservation in the Arabian Sea”, held in Muscat, Oman 21-24 January 2018

(Adapted from a press release issued by ESO and WWF Pakistan)

As part of its efforts to protect and conserve endangered whales, the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) hosted a workshop on Managing Data for Whale Conservation in the Arabian Sea. The workshop, organized jointly by ESO and WWF-Pakistan aimed to raise awareness of Arabian Sea humpback whales and other baleen whales, and introduce a regional data sharing platform developed specifically for the Arabian Sea Whale Network by the developers of Flukebook.

The workshop, included participants from Arabian Sea humpback whale range states, namely India, Pakistan, Iran, the UAE and Sri Lanka as well as other international partners. Presentations about research and conservation efforts from the Northwest Indian Ocean were shared, as well as exercises to enable the collection and compilation of the data under one single online platform. Arabian Sea humpback whales have been designated as an endangered sub-population on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, and have become a global priority for research and conservation.

Suaad Al Harthi, ESO’s Programme Director, said, “The workshop primarily intends to raise awareness on the need for conservation of the Arabian Sea humpback whale and also to introduce the new Arabian Sea Whale Network regional online data platform, Flukebook.  This tool that will allow whale researchers throughout the Arabian Sea region to streamline data collected into an integrated online platform for ease of data comparison to understand the connectivity between our shared resources.”

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Researchers from Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka compare photographs of humpback whale tail flukes from Pakistan and India, hoping to find evidence that whales are moving between different range states in the Arabian Sea.

The Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) was established in 2015 with the aim to facilitate the regional exchange of information, research efforts and strategies. Gianna Minton, Co-coordinator of the ASWN, said, “The data platform will be an extremely useful tool for the Network, and the meeting has also provided a great opportunity for network members to re-connect, take stock of the network’s progress so far, and discuss future aims and priorities. ”

Rab Nawaz, Senior Director Programmes at WWF-Pakistan added, “The regional database would help bridge the gap from a scientific perspective and aid in improved management of cetaceans and fisheries as a whole by providing necessary information to make informed decisions. Experts at the workshop can  provide scientific advice on  mitigating threats to the endangered, threatened and protected populations of cetaceans in the Arabian Sea by developing a strategy to reduce entanglements in fishing operations, which has been made possible with financial support from the Global Environment Facility, FAO and Commons Oceans for Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction Tuna Project,” he added

This press release led to news paper coverage in Oman:

The Muscat Daily (29/01/2018)

Al Bawaba (29/01/2018)

 

Indus River Canyon designated as Arabian Sea’s largest MPA

Press release issued by WWF  Pakistan on January 6th, 2018:

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Boundaries of the new Indus River Canyon MPA, note the overlap with recent humpback whale sightings reported by WWF’s crew-based observer programme (right) and Soviet whale catches from the 1960’s (below)

Karachi, January 6: The Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC), Government of Pakistan declared the Indus River Canyon (Exclusive Economic Zone) as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) through notification No. 9-5/2001 (BD) on Saturday. This is the second Marine Protected Area in Pakistan after Astola Island, which was notified on 15 June 2017 by the Government of Balochistan. WWF-Pakistan congratulated Syed Abu Ahmad Akif, Federal Secretary, Ministry of Climate Change for taking proactive action in declaring the Indus River Canyon Marine Protected Area (IRCMPA). The area covers 27,607 square kilometres, thus being the largest MPA of the Arabian Sea.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to which Pakistan is a signatory, requires nations under Article 2 to designate, regulate and manage geographically defined areas (protected areas) to achieve specific conservation objectives. By declaring the Indus River Canyon Marine Protected Area, Pakistan has achieved compliance to Aichi Target 11, which requires that by 2020 at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas of a country are conserved. Astola Island MPA has an area of 400 square kilometres, thus by declaring Indus River Canyon as a Marine Protected Area Pakistan has achieved 11.2 % of Aichi Target 11 of its sea area as MPAs.

According to Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Advisor (Marine Fisheries), the Indus River Canyon is a deep fissure located about 150 km southeast of Karachi in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Pakistan and southwest off the mouth of the Indus River. It extends in the offshore waters with a maximum depth of about 1,800 m. The Indus Canyon has unique physical features, with sloping margins falling steeply to a depth of 1,800 m and then entering the deep Arabian Sea Basin. The Indus Swatch is known to be rich in biodiversity including cetaceans, sharks, fish and different species of invertebrates. It is an important fishing ground especially for large sharks whose population has been dwindling due to uncontrolled fishing practices.

The Indus River Canyon MPA is home to rich mega fauna including whales and dolphins. It is reported that about 19 species of cetaceans such as baleen whales, toothed whales, and other whales and porpoises are known from the area. Some species including rough toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis) and striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) are only reported from this area along Pakistan’s coast. The Longman’s beaked whale (Indopacetus pacificus) has also been also been found here. This area was an important hunting ground for Russian whaling fleets, which hunted 164 Arabian humpback whales in 1966 from this area. Most of the hunted females were observed to be pregnant indicating that this area is an important breeding ground of these rare whales. In addition, this area was also an important feeding ground for these whales as most hunted whales contained sardines and pelagic shrimps in their stomachs; which indicates richness in productivity of IRCMPA. Aside from the diversified cetacean and elasmobranch (sharks) fauna, the Indus River Canyon is known to have rich fisheries resources.

Khan further pointed out that the declaration of the Indus River Canyon as an MPA ensures that the biodiversity of the area will be conserved. It will also ensure that protected, threatened and endangered species such as crustaceans, coral, mammals, sharks, turtles, whales, and mobulids will be conserved. Moreover, whale sharks, sunfish, guitarfish and seabirds will not be harvested or killed. ‘This will ensure conservation of these species whose population is drastically declining along the coast of Pakistan,’ he added.

 While, Dr. Babar Khan, Regional Head (Sindh and Balochistan), WWF-Pakistan appreciated the efforts of the Secretary, Ministry of Climate Change, Government of Pakistan in the declaration of the Indus River Canyon Marine Protected Area. WWF considers that this initiative will help protect marine ecosystems, processes, habitats, and species, which can contribute to the restoration and replenishment of resources for social, economic, and cultural enrichment.  He further added that WWF works around the world to ensure that critical habitats are protected and restored, and continue to provide multiple benefits to people and livelihoods. ‘WWF-Pakistan started to collect information about the Indus River Canyon in 2012 especially about shark, cetaceans and other animals, which helped highlight the area’s rich biodiversity and the critical need for conservation of this area, ’ he added.

ASWN Members and Soviet catches3

Catch locations of whales taken by the Soviets in 1964-66.  Note the density of yellow stars and blue circles depicting humpback and blue whales in the Indus River Canyon area off the coast of Pakistan – recently declared as an MPA.

Media coverage of this in Pakistan so far includes:

The News (08/01/2018)

The Daily Times (07/01/208)

The News (11/01/2018)

Press on both sides of the Arabian Sea for Luban, the tagged humpback whale

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Luban, the female humpback whale tagged off the coast of Oman.  Her name means Frankincense in Arabic and is derived from the tree-shaped pattern in the center of her tail flukes. Photo copyright: Environment Society of Oman

Since our earlier post on December 27th, Luban, the humpback whale tagged off the coast of Oman in November 2017, has continued to attract attention featuring in press articles on both sides of the Arabian Sea.  Luban spent several days off the southwest coast of India, and ASWN member, Dipani Sutaria was able to mobilize a whole network of diverse stakeholders to actively search for the whale – including fishermen, naturalists, scientists, the Coast Guard, the Forest Department, NGOs, and customs and port authorities – spread from Gujarat down to the coasts of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Lakshadweep.  Although the team has not yet been able to find Luban, the event has generated a wave of enthusiasm and excitement that is sure to spur future awareness and support for whale conservation efforts along the entire coastline.

Recent articles in the press include:

The Wire (01/01/2018)

The Times of Oman  (o3/01/2018)

Mathrubhumi (03/01/2018)

The Hindu Daily (02/01/2018)

Desabhimani Malayalam daily (03/01/2018)

Indian Express (04/01/2018)

The Better India (05/01/2018)

The Financial Express (05/01/2018)

Luban tagging map 03-01-2018

Map showing the track of Luban, the satellite tagged humpback whale- taken from http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?project_id=1295

Humpback whale tagged off the coast of Oman crosses Arabian Sea to India

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Tracks of the female humpback whale, “Luban”, who was fitted with a satellite tag off the coast of Oman in November 2017.  This is the first documented movement of an Arabian Sea humpback whale away from the coast of Oman, where they have been studied since 2000.

Official press release from the Environment Society of Oman (27 December, 2017):

“Luban” an Arabian Sea Humpback Whale tagged in the Gulf of Masirah last month, has made the first recorded trans-oceanic crossing across the Arabian Sea. “Luban” is one of 14 whales that have been tagged by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) under the Renaissance Whale and Dolphin Project, and the first tagged female.

Dedicated studies in Oman since 2000 have established that humpback whales found off the Sultanate are the only population of humpback whales in the world that do not make an annual migration between tropical and polar regions. The Environment Society of Oman started deploying satellite tags on the endangered species in 2014 to monitor the movements of this isolated population given that no other lines of scientific investigation had linked animals observed off Oman with those sighted elsewhere in the Arabian Sea, including, Iran, Pakistan and India. Until last week all of the tracks of the tagged whales only revealed movement along the Southern Coastline of Oman. However “Luban” a female tagged in the Gulf of Masirah in November 2017 started heading east across the Indian Ocean on the 12th and appeared just off the Indian coast on the 21st of December.

Andrew Willson from Five Oceans Environmental Services (5OES) in Muscat said: “The implications of this first trans-oceanic crossing reported by the tag represents a significant break-through for regional scientists who until this last week have been challenged to understand if the humpback whales observed in the Arabian sea are connected – or reside in their own discrete areas”. Willson continues “The population observed from studies off Oman since 2000 is thought to number less than 100 animals and resulted in their endangered population status under the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species. The fact that one female has now moved outside Omani waters during the known breeding season makes this theory concerning connectivity across the region more likely, and a first step towards considering humpbacks in the region as a single population unit. In the long term this question may be more fully investigated through genetic studies. It also raises the question as to whether there are more whales in the Arabian Sea than have been only observed in Omani waters, and, most importantly, where other important habitats may lie. These results provide some hope for the conservation agenda of these whales which will now certainly require regional cooperation to support further scientific investigations and their management.”

“The challenge is now to connect multiple lines of evidence using the satellite tracking, photo identification and humpback song analysis from acoustic recording units from across the region to produce Arabian Sea-wide population estimates, understand connectivity in greater detail and identify important habitats. Threats throughout the range of these whales are increasing, especially with the proliferation of coastal fishing and a threefold increase in shipping traffic in the Arabian Sea over the last 10 years – all of which provide risks of mortality from entanglement and ship strikes. Close coordination with government and private sector stakeholders is imperative for their continued survival”, comments Suaad Al Harthi, Program Director at the Environment Society of Oman.

The whale arrived off the coast of Goa after a journey of over 1500km. Over the last few days it has been heading steadily south at 5km/hr and its last known location was off the town of Mangaluru in Indian state of Karnataka. The importance of Luban’s journey has captured the interest of marine mammal researchers working off the west coast of India who have embarked on a campaign to try and locate the whale and understand how it may be using habitat off this coastline.

As part of its mission to represent Omani society in conserving the country’s natural resources, ESO remains committed to continuing its world-renowned whale and dolphin programme and applying an evidence-based conservation approach to ensure research is used to identify on-going threats that may arise from human activities.

“This is very exciting news as it takes years of research for us to start unveiling the mysteries of this population. It’s very clear that conservation of this population will need to involve both local and regional efforts. We look forward to further implications that will be revealed through this research.” said Suaad Al Harthi, Program Director at the Environment Society.

The Environment Society of Oman (ESO) through sponsorship from Renaissance and in partnership with Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, has been tagging Arabian Sea Humpback Whales since 2014. The initiative involves close collaboration with local entities including Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth, and Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC. Additional international partners this year have included Smithsonian Institution, Blue Planet Marine Ltd of New Zealand and the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society. ESO has been recognized as research pioneers within the region and is a part of the Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) a group of scientists and NGOs that have formed a network which aims to address knowledge gaps in the region, share information, raise awareness and develop strategies to help to protect whales.