Do ship strikes threaten the recovery of endangered eastern North Pacific blue whales?

Blue whales were targeted in the North Pacific from 1905–1971 and are listed as endangered by the IUCN. Despite decades without whaling, abundance estimates for eastern North Pacific (ENP) blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) suggest little evidence for a recent increase. One possible reason is fatal strikes by large ships, which have affected populations of other cetaceans and resulted in mitigation. We used a population dynamics model to assess the trends and status of ENP blue whales, and the effects of ship strikes. We estimate the population likely never dropped below 460 individuals, and is at 97% of carrying capacity (95% interval 62%–99%). These results suggest density dependence, not ship strikes, is the key reason for the observed lack of increase. We also estimate future strikes will likely have a minimal impact; for example, an 11-fold increase in vessels would lead to a 50% chance the long-term population would be considered depleted. Although we estimate ship strike mitigation would have minimal impacts on population trends and status, current levels of ship strikes are likely above legal limits set by the U.S. The recovery of ENP blue whales from whaling demonstrates the ability of blue whale populations to rebuild under careful management.

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