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The Western North Pacific population of gray whales is considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), numbering around 200 animals in 2015.  Although there is evidence that the population is slowly recovering, it remains on the edge of survival.  The IWC Scientific Committee has expressed great concern about the population and has highlighted the urgent need to reduce anthropogenic mortality to zero. 

The Western North Pacific Gray Whale CMP was endorsed by the Commission in 2010.  At the 2014 Commission Meeting, a Memorandum of Cooperation was signed by three range states: Japan, the Russian Federation and the USA. The Memorandum supports the work and implementation of the CMP and was strengthened in 2016 by the addition of two new range state signatories: the Republic of Korea and Mexico.

Industry is also an important collaborator on this CMP.  The Western North Pacific gray whale shares the waters off Sakhalin Island, Russia, with large-scale offshore oil and gas development projects.  The Commission worked closely with an IUCN Expert Panel and industry to understand and help minimise the potential impacts of industrial activities in the region.  Progress was  made in a number of areas, including publication of guidelines to minimise the impact of seismic surveys on environmentally sensitive areas. This project was completed in 2022.

Range-wide Review

One of the first actions called for in the CMP was a collaborative satellite telemetry programme, tagging western gray whales to understand more about their migratory behaviour.  Tags applied in 2010 and 2011 showed movement of some animals from the western to eastern Pacific, contradicting the long-held belief that these were two entirely isolated populations.  

It has also been established that not all western gray whales follow a winter migration from western to eastern Pacific.  Sightings and acoustic signals have been recorded off Japan and China during the winter and early spring months, indicating that the population structure of gray whales in the North Pacific is complex.

In light of this new information, the Scientific Committee of the IWC began a Range-wide Review of North Pacific gray whales in 2014.  The Fifth Range-wide Workshop on the Status of North Pacific Gray Whales was held in March 2018.  The Workshop recommended that the Scientific Committee establish a small drafting group to update the CMP in light of new information, and develop conservation questions that can be assessed using the new modelling framework for gray whales range-wide.

Priority work areas

Priority actions for the CMP during the 2018-20 intersessional period include:

  • Engaging with stakeholder groups in range states to develop actions to increase public awareness and build capacity of states to respond to any reports of gray whales (including sightings, strandings and bycatch).
  • Establishing programs in all range states for long-term monitoring of gray-whales, including photo-identification, biopsy sampling, acoustic monitoring, and/or satellite tagging.
  • Developing a communication mechanism to notify relevant experts when gray whales are sighted, found stranded, or found entangled in fishing gear.
  • Developing a shared phot-identification catalogue and dataset under the auspices of the Commission, for research groups collecting data on gray whales.
  • Holding a stakeholder workshop to finalise the CMP and develop an implementation strategy.

Read the original proposal for a Conservation Management Plan for gray whales in the western North Pacific, endorsed by the Commission in 2010.