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Consultation workbook on the addition of one population of bowhead whale to the SARA List: Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead whales

Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead whale population

Status:  Special Concern

Last Examination by COSEWIC:  May 2005


The bowhead whale, Baleana mysticetus, is a large baleen whale, with a barrel-shaped body and a very large head.  Young individuals are entirely brownish black, developing white markings on the chin, fluke tips and tailstock as they mature. At birth they are about 3.5-4.5 m long and weigh about 2,000-3,000 kg. Adult males reach physical maturity at about 12 m and weigh an average of 90,000 kg. Adult females reach maturity at about 13 m and can exceed 18 m at their maximum size.  Adult females are larger than adult males.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 25 years of age. Breeding occurs in late winter or early spring, and calves are born from April to early June after a gestation period of 13 to 14 months. On average, the calving interval is about one calf every three to four years.  Life span can exceed 100 years.

Bowhead whales feed mainly on copepods in areas where the currents are strongest.  Feeding activity may be high around the time of a full moon when tidal variation is greatest.

Where is this population of whales found?

The Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead whale population winters (November to April) in the western and central Bering Sea where there is adequate open water and broken pack ice (Figure 1).  In spring (April through June) the whales migrate north and east to the eastern Beaufort Sea. In summer (June to September) the whales are distributed mainly in the Canadian Beaufort Sea, along the south and west coasts of Banks Island, in Amundsen Gulf, and along western Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. In fall (September and October) bowhead whales migrate from the Canadian Beaufort Sea into Alaskan Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea and then into the Bering Sea.

How many whales are there?

The most recent published estimate, based on the 2001 ice-based census, is 10,470 (8,100-13,500) whales.

Threats to the population

Bowhead whales are known to be displaced for short periods of time by industrial activity such as oil and gas exploration and development. Effects on bowhead whales over the long term are unknown.

Are they hunted?

In Canada, one bowhead whale was landed in 1991 and one in 1996 by the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee (HTC). No further licenses have been requested by (or issued to) the Aklavik HTC since 1996. In Alaska and the Chukotka Peninsula, there is a subsistence harvest. A quota of 280 bowhead whales was set for 1999-2002 of which a total of 67 (plus up to 15 unharvested in the previous year) could be taken each year.

COSEWIC Reason for Designation:

This population was hunted to low levels during commercial whaling. Although supporting a regulated hunt, it is recovering and is currently at about 50% of its historical population size. The population is not yet secure and is potentially negatively affected by climate change, and by oil and gas development.

What will happen if this population is added to the SARA List?

Adding Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead whales as a Species of Special Concern to the SARA List would require the development of a management plan, a document to promote conservation of a vulnerable species or population by establishing specific management or conservation measures. A Management Plan was developed for bowhead whales in the Western Arctic in 1994. If Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead whales are added to the SARA List the Management Plan will be updated.