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Industry Insights
Whale jumping out of water.

Bowheads, Blues and Bryde’s: Reflections on Work with the International Whaling Commission

By John Bickham

Among the many environmental concerns relevant to the oil & gas community, whales loom large—both literally and figuratively. They’ve been a big part of my life, too, through my work with the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

A number of whale species live in or migrate through ocean areas with active offshore oil & gas development. Many of these species are endangered and protected by U.S. and international law. With their large size and relatively small populations, these giants of the sea also act as “signal species,” providing indicators of wider environmental disruption. Their popularity with the public makes protection of whales both a public relations priority and an ethical imperative for oil & gas developers. 

Since getting involved with the IWC in 2003, I have dedicated a large portion of my career to studying whale populations to support ongoing environmental management efforts. For the past 13 years, I have served as a U.S. delegate to the IWC Scientific Committee. I participate in several standing committees, including Environmental; Stock Definition; Bowhead, Right and Gray (BRG) Whales; and Aboriginal Whaling Management Plan working groups. My work with the IWC has spanned much of my career beginning as a Professor at Texas A&M, and continuing at Purdue and now Battelle. The Scientific Committee of IWC is an interesting mix of politics, advocacy and excellent science. The most controversial issue at this year’s meeting, held in May in San Diego, was the establishment of a new permit for Japan to conduct scientific whaling in the southern oceans. Many countries oppose this, but Japan can legally conduct this work provided their proposal complies with sound scientific principles. 

My research focuses on the genetics and genomics of whales, including population genetics, historical demography and genome sequencing. My work at Battelle has included participation on the Gray Whale Genome Project (in collaboration with Dr. Andrew DeWoody at Purdue University). I have also been involved with the bowhead whale genome project. One of our studies, published in January 2015, examines possible clues to longevity in the genomes of bowhead whales. 

By studying whale DNA, we can tell whether whales seen in different parts of the ocean are part of different groups or simply the same group at different points in their migration. We can also see how closely different groups of whales are related and determine whether the groups represent distinct subspecies or other management units. Genetic studies give us important information about population sizes, migration patterns, genetic diversity and evolutionary history.

These studies are important to help the oil & gas community understand the risks different activities may present to endangered populations and make better decisions to balance environmental and development priorities.

Some of my work has been devoted to studying the bowhead whale populations in the Beaufort Sea off the North Slope of Alaska on behalf of the North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Bowhead whales are important to Eskimo communities in Northern Alaska for both subsistence and ceremonial purposes. The Alaskan bowhead population has rebounded from commercial whaling, now numbering more than 17,000, and native populations are given a quota of about 50 whales each year for their hunts. The genetic studies we conduct as part of the IWC are used to establish safe quotas. Oil & gas developers operating in the Beaufort Sea also need to 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.

This fall, Battelle is sponsoring a symposium on Bowhead Whale Genomics in cooperation with the North Slope Borough. We will be presenting the latest research on the Beaufort Sea bowhead whale populations and facilitating dialogue among researchers, industry leaders, whaling captains and other stakeholders.

My current work with the IWC also includes important studies of gray whale populations in the northern Pacific Ocean. Gray whales once included large populations both along the North American Coast and the Asian Pacific Rim. The eastern gray whale, once hunted nearly to extinction, has rebounded substantially under endangered species protection laws. The western gray whale, once common in waters near Japan and Korea, was thought until recently to be extinct. A small population of roughly 150 gray whales spotted near Sakhalin Island may represent the last remaining members of their species—or a new colonization of this area by eastern gray whales. Our genetic studies will help to clarify whether this small group is a distinct population or part of the larger eastern gray whale genetic pool. The results will help us to develop guidelines for oil & gas development in the western Pacific.

There is high diversity of cetacean species in the Gulf of Mexico, including sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, and small toothed marine mammals like dolphins and porpoises.  Because of oil and gas development and other activities in the area, some of these species are also of interest to the IWC.

My history with the IWC has helped me bring new insights into my environmental work at Battelle. Battelle is heavily involved in environmental work for the oil & gas community, including biodiversity studies, environmental impact studies, risk management and mitigation, and oil spill response. Understanding the potential impact of offshore oil development on large marine mammals helps oil & gas companies maintain compliance with environmental regulations, including the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Our understanding of whale populations and genetics helps us to make science-based recommendations that are practical and economically feasible for developers.