Migrating Humpback Whales Reach Record-High Numbers Off Japan’s Amami Island

Humpback whales are incredibly enormous creatures. With adults growing to be between 10 and 20 meters long, they average to about the size of a school bus! These whales are especially adored for their haunting underwater singing, as well as the magnificent way they breach the water with surprising agility. Humpback whales migrate all over the world, and where you might find them depends entirely on the time of year.

Photo: Adobe Stock/gudkovandrey

In the summer, humpbacks gather in high-latitude feeding waters, such as the Gulf of Maine or the Gulf of Alaska, to fill up on as many nutrients as they can. Then, come winter, they swim to warmer waters closer to the Equator, near Hawaii, Africa, and sometimes Japan.

Amami-Oshima is the largest island in the Amami archipelago and is known as an excellent place in Japan for whale watching. Historically, humpback whales migrate to the waters around the island during the winter months to breed and raise their young. The whales travel in groups known as pods, and typically return north sometime in March.

Photo: Adobe Stock/damedias

In 2014, full-scale research on the whales and their migration patterns began as part of the Environmental Ministry’s cetacean research program. For the past six years, the number of humpback whales that migrate to the island’s waters has steadily increased, and this year is no different. In fact, for the first time since researchers began collecting data, this season’s count of whales has surpassed 1,000. During the 2020-2021 migratory period, the Amami island saw 1,087 migrating humpbacks, part of 670 different pods.

Of the 670 pods noted, a record 105 included mothers and their calves, showing evidence that the Amami-Oshima waters remain suitable for parenting. Additionally, one pod was observed remaining in the area for 48 days before returning north. These observations were recorded by the Amami Whale and Dolphin Association, which noted that 2,895 people participated in whale watching tours this season. Further, 1,783 participated in the “whale swim,” where they were able to swim with whales while accompanied by a guide. Although the amount of participation is promising for the tourist industry in the area, the whale watcher numbers were still down about 20 percent due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Chris

Unfortunately, commercial whaling brought most whales to the brink of extinction in the 19th and early 20th century. By the 1960s, whalers had developed more efficient catch methods and huge factory ships, effectively pushing government officials to take action. In 1986, all members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed to a hunting moratorium so as to allow whale numbers to recover naturally over time. However, it became clear that the whaling countries like Japan, Norway and Iceland assumed the moratorium would be temporary, while the rest of the commission were comfortable making the ban permanent.

Therefore, in 1987 Japan took full advantage of an exception in the moratorium, which allowed whaling for scientific purposes. Since ’87, Japan has killed anywhere between 200 and 1,200 whales each year, claiming it was necessary as part of research. However, many critics believe this was an attempt to cover Japan’s continued practice of profitable whaling, as the meat from the whales killed for research was typically put up for sale. Japan has continued to try and convince the IWC to remove the moratorium, and after another failed attempt in 2018, Japan left the IWC in July of 2019.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Yusei

Japan is limited to whaling only within its 12 mile coastal waters, and is otherwise bound by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Additionally, they are limited to only hunting three species of whale: minke, Bryde’s and sei whales. Minke and Bryde’s whales are not endangered, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and the sei whale are endangered, but their numbers are increasing. Defenders of Japan’s whaling industry say that not only will this whaling have a minimal impact on the overall population of the whales, but they argue that whale meat has a smaller carbon footprint than pork or beef, and is therefore a more sustainable source of farmed meats.

Before the moratorium on commercial whaling was put into effect, all populations of humpbacks had been reduced by more than 95 percent. Although the species as seen as incredible comeback since receiving governmental protection, the humpback whales still face threats from “entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, vessel-based harassment, and underwater noise.” To help protect humpback whales and other threatened and endangered species, take action today and sign this petition.

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