Many of the great whale populations are much lower than previously estimated, according to research obtained by Greenpeace International. A report from the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) reveals that, despite intensive surveys, only 75 blue whales have been sighted in the Antarctic in the past 20 years.
Blue whales used to be hunted, and their numbers were reduced from an estimated 250,000 to around 1,000 over a period of 60 years. Now, though they are fully protected, it appears that their numbers are not recovering.
"Whales don't recover quickly from over-exploitation, and it's particularly worrying that the blue whale is failing to recover, because it's been protected for so long," said Greenpeace oceans campaigner Richard Page. "One possible reason is climate change, which is known to be having an increasing impact on the Antarctic ecosystem", he added.
There is also concern about the southern hemisphere minke whale population, which the IWC has revealed is now less than half what it was when it was last surveyed. Though minke numbers are much higher than those of the blue whale, this is a species that is targeted by the Japanese for its so-called 'scientific' whaling programme.
Conservationists fear that minkes would be at risk should the Japanese decide to expand the programme or manage to overturn the moratorium on commercial whaling at the IWC conference currently being held in Shimonoseki, in Japan. The indications so far, however, are that the moratorium will stay in place, for this year at least.