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Marine and Onshore Sampling of Whale Bones from 16th and 17th Century Basque Fishery Sites in Quebec and Labrador, for Molecular Analyses

Grant Funded: 2005-2007

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whales with an estimated 350 individuals remaining. It has been proposed that the current status of the species (with few remaining individuals and low levels of genetic variability) is due to over 800 years of exploitation, with the most severe being 16th century Basque harvesting in the Strait of Belle Isle/Gulf of St. Lawrence. To address this hypothesis we have conducted genetic analysis on whale bones found at Basque sites in Quebec and Labrador. This work has resulted in the identification of bone deposits at a number of Basque sites and successful extraction and analysis of historic DNA from both terrestrial and marine bone deposits

Contrary to expectations, genetic analysis of almost 200 whale bones has revealed that the majority of the specimens are bowhead whale, and only a single right whale has been found. The genetic characteristics of this single right whale bone have revealed that the specimen came from a population of right whales that is genetically similar to the population existing today, a finding that is in conflict with the current view that harvesting depleted the genetic variability in this species. This raises many questions regarding the size and distribution of historic right whale populations and suggests that small population size and low levels of genetic variability may be characteristics that pre-date whaling in the western North Atlantic. The samples that have been collected thus far have come from sites ranging from Middle Bay, QC to Chateau Bay, NL.

To continue this research, we now propose to extend our sampling range to include known/located Basque sites ranging from Middle Bay, QC to Tadoussac, QC.These sites may have a higher likelihood of containing right whale bones, as they are more southerly, and within the known range of contemporary right whale distribution. In the summer of 2005 we plan to conduct terrestrial (and potentially marine) sampling at sites that are located both by car, where possible, and by boat (S/V Rosita) in more remote cases. The following expense review outlines how funding will support this work, which includes supplies, accommodations, food, and travel for 4-5 individuals.

Last updated: February 27, 2008