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Bowhead Whale Symposium Highlights Role of Genomics in Conservation

The secret to conserving some of the world’s largest creatures could be found in molecules too small to see. Genomic research is shedding new light on bowhead whale populations and migration patterns. These insights are helping the oil and gas community and native Alaska populations work together to make effective decisions that balance conservation, community and development needs. 

This past October, Battelle and the North Slope Borough of Alaska sponsored an industry meeting to examine these issues in depth. The conference brought together academics and researchers from across the country with representatives of the oil and gas industry, the North Slope Borough, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and indigenous communities. The two-day symposium, held at Battelle’s headquarters in Columbus, OH, provided participants with opportunities to network and catch up on the latest developments in the field. 

Battelle scientists shared updates from their genomic research at the symposium. Additional sessions covered the biology of bowhead whales, an introduction to genomic research methods, and presentations on metagenomics, population genomics and mitochondrial genetics. Each day featured a special lunch presentation. On day one, Harry Brower Jr. of the North Slope Borough discussed the bowhead whale’s role and importance in native Eskimo culture. On day two, author Hans Thewissen shared research on whale evolution and fossil documentation from his latest book, The Walking Whales. The symposium wrapped up with a panel discussion summarizing lessons learned and next steps for the research community, IWC and North Slope Borough. 

Bowhead whales are important to native Alaskan Eskimo communities for both subsistence and ceremonial purposes. They are also protected by national and international conservation laws. Oil nd gas developers operating in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas must understand bowhead whale populations and migration patterns so that their activities do not negatively impact either whale populations or the Eskimo hunts, both of which are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

Genomic research conducted by Battelle on behalf of IWC, the North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission has helped scientists answer important questions about the size and diversity of the bowhead whale population. Genomics also provides insights into whale evolution, population dynamics, movement patterns and the spread of diseases in populations. The research helps scientists better understand the vulnerabilities of specific bowhead populations and of the species as a whole. 

The IWC uses this research to set hunting quotas for Eskimo communities. It is also used to help the oil and gas community understand the risks of different activities and make better decisions to balance conservation and development priorities. The symposium brought stakeholders together to further define the role of genomics in environmental monitoring and conservation. 

Battelle is continuing work with the IWC and North Slope Borough to understand and monitor bowhead whale populations over time. Similar work is now underway with gray whales in the Northern Pacific.