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Posted Wed Feb 10 2010: from New Scientist:
Lost leviathans: Hunting the world's missing whales
They are enigmatic sea monsters -- rare, magnificent beasts patrolling the ocean depths. Yet old chronicles tell of populations of whales hundreds of times greater than today. Such tales have long been dismissed as exaggerations, but could they be true? Have humans killed such a staggering number of whales? New genetic techniques for analysing whale populations, alongside a growing archive of fresh historical analysis, suggest so. Taken together, they indicate that we have got our ideas about marine ecology completely upside down: whales may once have been the dominant species in the world's oceans. This is not simply an academic question. It matters now more than ever before. Whale numbers have been recovering slowly since the end of large-scale hunting in 1986, but this global moratorium is only temporary. The International Whaling Commission, the club of mostly former whaling nations which maintains the ban, has rules that say it can reconsider hunting a given whale species if its population climbs back to more than 54 per cent of its pre-hunting levels. Right now, according to IWC estimates, Atlantic humpbacks and Pacific minkes may have recovered sufficiently to put them back in whalers' sights. But, crucially, such decisions rest on the veracity of the IWC's estimates of historical whale populations -- 54 per cent of what, exactly? If the old salts' tales of whale abundance are true, it is way too early to be dusting off those harpoons.
[Read more stories about: hunting to extinction, stupid humans, regulatory stupidity]

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