Special Status Species
Fin whale
Photo: Protected Resources Division,
Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
Common name: Fin whale
Scientific name: Balaenoptera physalus
Stock: California/Oregon/Washington
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Range Habitat Movements
Abundance Natural History Threats
Conservation Research Gaps Recommended Actions
References Resources

Listing Status
Endangered Species Act (?)
Status: Endangered (all stocks)
Critical Habitat: Not designated
Recovery Plan: Draft released in 19981
Five Year Status Review: None

California Endangered Species Act (?)
Status: Not listed

Marine Mammal Protection Act (?)
Status: Depleted; strategic stock
Stock Assessment: Updated annually2

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) (?)
Status: Endangered (world-wide)

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (?)
Appendix I

Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (?)
Appendix I
Appendix II

Geographic Range

This species occurs worldwide from subtropical to polar waters (latitude 20-75°N), but it is most frequently found in temperate latitudes (Figure 1).3 The International Whaling Commission (IWC) recognized two stocks of fin whales in the North Pacific: the East China Sea and the rest of the North Pacific. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) stock assessment reports recognize three stocks of fin whales in the North Pacific: 1) the California/Oregon/Washington stock; 2) the Hawaii stock; and 3) the Alaska stock.2 However, a lack of genetic and movement data on fin whales in the North Pacific makes it difficult to accurately determine population structure and geographic range of the different stocks. In the northeastern Pacific, fin whales have been observed year-round in southern and central California and in the summer/fall off Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska (Figure 2).1


Fin whales occur regularly in offshore waters throughout the geographic range of the MBNMS (Figure 2).2,4

Fin whale distribution map
Figure 1. The worldwide geographic distribution of fin whales Balaenoptera physalus.3
Download full-size figure (1 MB PDF).
Fin whale sightings map
Figure 2. Sightings and group sizes (where available) for fin whales from Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) ship surveys 1991-2001 and seven surveys of marine mammals compiled in the Computer Database Analysis System (CDAS) v2.1, 1975-1997 (reprinted from NCCOS 2005; see Figures 6.1.2 of that report for actual transects lines surveyed by SWFSC and Figure 6.1.5 for the survey effort of the surveys in the CDAS).4
Download full-size figure (1 MB PDF).

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This species is most abundant along boundary currents and mixing zones in offshore waters where prey is concentrated.1


Same as above. Though this species is sighted in the Sanctuary, no areas have been identified with unusually high abundance or encounter rates.

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Migration and Movements

Abundance of fin whale in coastal waters of California, Oregon and Washington increases in the summer/fall and decreases in the winter/spring suggesting that many individuals may migrate seasonally between high-latitude feeding grounds in summer and lower-latitude breeding grounds in winter.1,2 Eight fin whales tagged in the winter (November to January) off southern California all migrated north during the summer and were recaptured in central California (1 whale), Oregon (4 whales), British Columbia (1 whale) and the Gulf of Alaska (2 whales).5 Arrival time on the summer feeding areas may differ from year to year.

The location of winter breeding areas and migration routes are difficult to determine because this species tends to migrate in the open ocean. The Gulf of California was identified as a possible destination of the CA/OR/WA stock based on an observed increase in fin whale abundance in the Gulf during winter/spring.6 However, Bérubé and colleagues found that there are significant genetic differences between fin whales off California and those in the Gulf of California, which suggest that whales off California are not intermixing with those in the Gulf during the breeding season.7

Acoustic monitoring for whales between California and Washington found that some fin whales remain in that region during the winter. Fin whales were detected year-round off northern California, Oregon and Washington, with vocal activity peaking between September and February.8


Very little is known about the movement patterns of fin whales along the central California coast. Though this species is present year-round, it is more frequently observed off the central California coast in the summer and early fall.9 Movement patterns of tagged whales suggest that individuals using the MBNMS may be moving along the entire west coast of the U.S. and Canada (and potentially southern Alaska) in search of prey.5

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The North Pacific fin whale populations may have numbered approximately 42,000-45,000 individuals prior to exploitation.10 Commercial whaling may have reduced this population to fewer than 14,000 before they were given protected status by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1976. Although the population in the North Pacific is expected to have grown since receiving protected status in 1976, the available data suggest that the population has not increased.3 The possible negative effects of continued unauthorized take, take under scientific permits, and incidental mortality from ship strikes and gillnet entanglement could be preventing population growth. The abundance estimate for California, Oregon, and Washington waters out to 300 nautical miles, based on 1996 and 2001 shipboard surveys, is 3,279 fin whales.11,12


Fin whales are occasionally encountered in the offshore waters of the Sanctuary. Their local abundance is likely lower than it was prior to exploitation. Logbook data for a whaling station at Moss Landing (in Monterey Bay) indicate that fin whales were the second most commonly caught species between 1919-1924 (177 whales).13 In addition, fin whales were the most commonly landed species (1,060 whales) between 1956-1970 by California coastal whalers operating out of two whaling stations in San Francisco Bay (located at the northern end of the MBNMS).5 Recently, Barlow found that fin whales were among the three most commonly sighted species of baleen whale during ship-board surveys along the U.S. west coast.12

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Natural History
Click here to view the natural history information of this species.


Intentional Take : Either under scientific research permits or by illegal whaling. Illegal whaling is unlikely in U.S. territorial waters, but may occur on the high seas or in territorial waters of other countries.

Collisions with Ships: Ship strikes caused the death of two fin whales off the U.S. west coast between 1997 and 2001.2 This number may be an underestimate because whales struck and killed by fast moving vessels may sink and go unnoticed. Laist and colleagues found that fin whales are the most commonly struck baleen whales.18

Acoustic Disturbance: There is concern about the potential negative impacts to marine mammals of a variety of acoustic disturbances (e.g., noise from ships, aircraft, research boats, and military and industrial activities).19 Noise can cause direct physiological damage, mask communication, or disrupt important migration, feeding or breeding behaviors. Active-sonar, specifically low frequency (100-500 Hz) and mid-frequency (2.8-3.3 kHz) active sonar used in military activities by the U.S. and other nations, is one sound source of particular concern.19 Croll and colleagues found that fin and blue whales showed no obvious responses when exposed to the US Navy’s SURTASS LFA (Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active) sonar system for short time periods (intermittent noise production over 18 days).27 However, the possibility of negative impacts over longer exposure periods could not be determined. The impact, if any, of noise from seismic testing for geological mapping and oil and gas exploration is unknown.

Entanglement in Fishing Gear: One fin whale death has been observed in the CA/OR offshore drift gillnet fishery since the Take Reduction Plan began in 1997.2 Incidental take may be occurring in the drift gillnet fisheries for swordfish and sharks along the Pacific coast of Baja California.

Declining Prey Resources: Declining abundance of prey species could result from either natural prey population fluctuations or commercial harvest of prey species. Schooling fishes are often used for human consumption, as bait, or as feed in mariculture facilities.

Habitat Degradation (e.g., chemical pollution, oil pollution, coastal development): Any increase in offshore oil and gas development would increase both the potential of an oil or chemical spill and the amount of shipping traffic through fin whale habitat.


No threats are unique to the MBNMS.

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Conservation and Research

In 1976 fin whales in the North Pacific were given complete protection under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Fin whales are listed as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the eastern North Pacific stock is considered "depleted" and a "strategic stock" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Under the ESA and MMPA, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is responsible for management and recovery of fin whales in U.S. waters.

As required under the MMPA, NMFS annually updates the Stock Assessment Reports (SARs) for all strategic stocks and the most recent SARs are available on the NOAA Office of Protected Resources website. The MMPA also requires the formation of Take Reduction Plans to reduce the incidental serious injury and mortality of marine mammals from commercial fishing operations. In 1997 NMFS implemented a Take Reduction Plan for Pacific Offshore Cetaceans to address incidental takes of cetaceans in the California/Oregon swordfish drift gillnet fishery. The plan included skipper education workshops and required the use of pingers and minimum 36 feet extenders. Since implementation, overall cetacean entanglement rates in the California/Oregon swordfish drift gillnet fishery dropped considerably.20

As required under the ESA, NMFS assembled a recovery team to write a recovery plan for this species. A joint draft recovery plan for the fin whale and sei whale was released in 1998.1 The key recommended actions were to:

    1. continue to protect from commercial whaling,
    2. coordinate state, federal, and international efforts to implement recovery efforts,
    3. establish classification criteria for the recovery status of fin and sei whale populations and develop criteria for delisting or downlisting recovering populations,
    4. determine population discreteness and stock structure,
    5. estimate population sizes and monitor trends in abundance,
    6. identify and protect critical habitats,
    7. identify causes and minimize frequency of human-caused injury and mortality,
    8. determine and minimize any detrimental effects of directed vessel and aircraft interactions, and
    9. maximize efforts to acquire scientific information from dead, stranded, and entangled animals.

NMFS is responsible for implementing the actions recommended in the recovery plan. On-going research projects by federal scientists include:

Shipboard Cetacean Surveys (Lead Scientist: Jay Barlow, Coastal Marine Mammal Program, Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC)). The abundance of cetaceans along the U.S. west coast (out to a distance of approximately 300 nautical miles) is periodically estimated from shipboard surveys. Most recently, surveys occurred in 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2005. These surveys are anticipated to continue every 4-5 years.21 The multi-year (2004-2006) SPLASH (Structure of Population, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks) research program, though targeting humpback whales, is recording the distribution and abundance of other cetaceans as time allows.

Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program Network (Joe Cordaro, Southwest Regional Stranding Coordinator, SWFSC). The network consists of volunteer groups that respond to marine mammal strandings in different parts of the southwest region. Samples from stranded animals provide information on biological parameters, including age, length, reproductive condition, contaminant loads, stock discreteness, types of parasites or diseases, and cause of death. In addition to collecting data from stranded animals, this program assesses health trends, correlates health with available data on physical, chemical, environmental, and biological parameters, and coordinates effective responses to unusual mortality events.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) is one of eight regional fishery management councils established by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 for the purpose of managing fisheries 3-200 miles offshore of the U.S. coastline. The Pacific Council is responsible for fisheries off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. In March 2006, the PFMC adopted Amendment 12 to the Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery Management Plan (CPSFMP). This amendment adds krill to the species managed under the (CPSFMP), and prohibits harvesting krill in the Economic Exclusive Zone off the west coast of the U.S. The amendment makes no provision for future or experimental fisheries. This ban on krill fishing protects fin whales from competition with commercial fisheries for krill resources in federal waters.


CSCAPE - Collaborative Survey of Cetacean Abundance and the Pelagic Ecosystem (Principal Investigator: Karin Forney, NMFS-SWFSC). The 2005 shipboard cetacean survey was part of a collaboration with the National Marine Sanctuary Program called CSCAPE. The primary objective of CSCAPE was to combine the typical marine mammal assessment survey with fine-scale surveys within the boundaries of the five west coast National Marine Sanctuaries. A secondary objective was to characterize the pelagic ecosystem within the study area, through the collection of underway and station-based biological and oceanographic data, seabird studies, and acoustic sampling. A final objective was to conduct biopsy sampling and photo-identification studies of marine mammal species of special interest.

Beach COMBERS - Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research Surveys (Project Leader: Hannah Nevins, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories). In 1997 the MBNMS began a beach survey program using trained volunteers to survey beached marine birds and mammals monthly at selected sections of beaches throughout the Monterey Bay area. Currently, the program monitors 45 km of beaches in the MBNMS. The program is a collaborative project between MLML, MBNMS, and other state and research institutions, with the specific goal of using deposition of beach cast carcasses as an index of the health of the sanctuary. The Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program Network is notified of all stranded or dead cetaceans so that data can be collected and the cause of the stranding event determined.


The California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) is not required to have research and monitoring programs for fin whales because this species is not listed as threatened or endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. However, under the federal ESA, CDFG is required to decrease or eliminate negative impacts of state-managed fisheries on fin whales. The Take Reduction Plan for the drift gillnet fishery appears to have lessened the impact of this state-managed fishery on this species though incidental take still occurs infrequently.

In 2000, the California state legislature passed the Strom-Martin bill (A.B. 2482), which modified the California Fish and Game Code to make it unlawful to take krill for commercial purposes from state waters or land krill at any state port until January 1, 2011. In 2003, A.B. 1296 amended the Fish and Game Code (Section 8510) to remove the sunset provision, thus making the prohibition on krill fishing in state waters indefinite. This law protects fin whales from competition with commercial fisheries for krill resources in state waters.


The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the fin whale as “Endangered” worldwide. The fin whale is listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which includes species threatened with extinction and allows trade of Appendix I species only in exceptional circumstances. In addition, this species is listed under Appendix I and Appendix II of the North American Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS), which includes migratory species that have been categorized as being in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range and would benefit significantly from co-operation between Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which was signed in Washington D.C. on December 2, 1946. The purpose of the Convention is to provide for the conservation of whale stocks and the development of the whaling industry. The IWC has prohibited the taking of fin whales in the North Pacific since 1986. Currently, the IWC has 57 member nations and all members have agreed to uphold the prohibition on take of fin whales. However, Article VIII of the 1946 Convention gives member states the right to issue scientific permits, which allow take for research purposes. In addition, Article VIII requires that the animals be utilized once the scientific data have been collected. This requirement allows whale products to be sold in the commercial markets of the permitting country, but export of whale products is prohibited in most cases under CITES. Between 1986 and 1990, a combined total of 292 fin whales were taken from the North Atlantic by Iceland and Norway under scientific permit. No fin whales have been collected under scientific permit from the North Pacific.

The "Witness for the Whales" DNA surveillance program has a website, hosted by the University of Auckland, that can be used to identify illegal products from protected species of cetaceans. The website contains DNA sequences from a comprehensive and representative range of cetaceans against which a researcher can compare a DNA sequence acquired from "unknown" whale meat or other body parts. This information can be used to identify individuals or countries that are taking protected species. Between 1993 and 1999, analysis of cetacean products purchased in commercial markets in Japan revealed that 10% came from protected species, including 26 samples from fin whales.22 These findings have raised concerns about the possibility of illegal take of this species and illegal importing/exporting of whale products collected under scientific permits.

TOPP - Tagging of Pacific Pelagics (Cetacean working group leader: Bruce Mate, Oregon State University). The goal of TOPP, which began in 2000, is to understand the migration patterns of large, open ocean animals in the North Pacific. Satellite tags attached to fin whales off California are helping researchers determine diving patterns, migration routes, and the location of feeding and breeding habitats. Collaborators in the cetacean group include scientists from NOAA, UC Santa Cruz, Oregon State University, Cascadia Research, and Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. Source of funding: U.S. Office of Naval Research, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Tagging of fin whales is most likely to occur in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.


CIMT - Center for Integrated Marine Technologies: Wind to Whales (Contact: Andrew DeVogelaere, MBNMS). The Monterey Bay - from Pt. Año Nuevo to Pt. Lobos and out to 122°05' west longitude - is the focal region of the CIMT Wind to Whales Program. This project, which began in 1997, is an interdisciplinary collaborative research project involving scientists and engineers from UCSC, NMFS, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Labs, MBNMS, and Naval Postgraduate School. CIMT uses data collected via remote sensing, moorings and ship-board surveys to investigate linkages between: coastal upwelling, nutrient delivery, spatial and temporal variability in phytoplankton, and the distribution and abundance of organisms at higher trophic levels including squid, fishes, seabirds, sea turtles, pinnipeds, and whales. Currently monthly ship-board surveys and bottom-mounted passive acoustic mooring system are being used to monitor vocal behavior and determine distribution and abundance patterns of cetaceans in the Monterey Bay.

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Research Gaps
  • Conduct systematic, MBNMS-wide aerial or ship-board surveys to determine distribution and abundance of fin whales in Sanctuary waters and to identify the location of important foraging habitat in the MBNMS.
  • Improve knowledge of fin whale feeding ecology and the characteristics of important foraging habitats.
  • Determine the impacts of various types of acoustic disturbance that occur in the MBNMS.23,24
  • Determine the stock structure of fin whales in the North Pacific. Develop a broad-scale program to obtain biopsies and photos for mark-recapture abundance estimation. Use biopsies to determine the genetic variability within the CA/OR/WA stock and between this stock and the other North Pacific stocks. Telemetry studies are needed to assess daily and seasonal movements and inter-area exchange.

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Recommended Actions
  • Support a continued international ban on commercial hunting and other directed lethal take. Support efforts to detect and prevent illegal whaling and to minimize the number of animals collected for scientific research.
  • Encourage NMFS to establish classification criteria for the recovery status of fin whale populations and develop criteria for delisting or downlisting recovering populations.
  • Reduce the threat of entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris, particularly fishing gear. Efforts should include education outreach to fishing industry, abandoned gear recovery, and entanglement/stranding response teams.25
  • If certain acoustical disturbances are found to negatively impact fin whales, work to minimize those activities in the MBNMS.
  • Discourage offshore mariculture projects in the MBNMS. Offshore mariculture could negatively impact humpback whales in three ways:
      1. entanglement in netting and lines;26
      2. competition for food - schooling fishes are often harvested to feed to farmed fish; and
      3. habitat degradation - declining water quality and increasing parasite load.

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Cited References
1. Reeves RR, Silber GK, Payne PM (1998) Draft Recovery Plan for the Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus and Sei Whale Balaenoptera borealis. Draft Report prepared for the Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Silver Spring, Maryland.
2. Carretta JV, Forney KA, Muto MM, Barlow J, Baker J, Lowry M (2004) U.S. Pacific Marine Mammal Stock Assessments: 2003. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-358, U.S. Department of Commerce.
3. Perry SL, DeMaster DP, Silber GK (1999) The Great Whales: History and Status of Six Species Listed as Endangered Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Marine Fisheries Review 61:1-74.
4. NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) (2005) A Biogeographic Assessment of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary: A Review of Boundary Expansion Concepts for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program. Prepared by NCCOS's Biogeography Team in cooperation with the National Marine Sanctuary Program, Silver Spring, MD. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS 21. 215 pp.
5. Rice D (1974) Whales and whale research in the eastern North Pacific. In: Schevill WE (ed) The whale problem. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, p 170-195.
6. Tershy BR (1992) Body size, diet, habitat use, and social behavior of Balaenoptera whales in the Gulf of California. Journal of Mammalogy 73:477-486.
7. Bérubé M, Urbán JR, Dizon AE, Brownell RL, Palsbøll PJ (2002) Genetic identification of a small and highly isolated population of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Conservation Genetics 3:183-190.
8. Moore SE, Stafford KM, Dahlheim ME, Fox CG, Braham HW, Polovin JJ, Bain DE (1998) Seasonal variation in reception of fin whale calls at five geographic areas in the North Pacific. Marine Mammal Science 14:617-627.
9. Forney KA, Barlow J (1998) Seasonal patterns in the abundance and distribution of California Cetaceans, 1991-1992. Marine Mammal Science 14:460-489.
10. Braham HW (1984) The status of endangered whales. Marine Fisheries Review 46.
11. Barlow J, Taylor BL (2001) Estimates of large whale abundance off California, Oregon, Washington, and Baja California based on 1993 and 1996 ship surveys. Southwest Fisheries Science Center Administrative Report LJ-01-03, La Jolla, CA. 12 p.
12. Barlow J (2003) Preliminary estimates of the abundance of cetaceans along the U.S. west coast: 1991-2001. Southwest Fisheries Science Center Administrative Report LJ-03-03, La Jolla, CA.
13. Clapham PJ, Leatherwood S, Szczepaniak I, Brownell RL, Jr. (1997) Catches of humpback and other whales from shore stations at Moss Landing and Trinidad, California, 1919-1926. Marine Mammal Science 13:368-394.
14. Rice DW (1998) Marine mammals of the world: systematics and distribution. Society for Marine Mammalogy Special Publication No. 4.
15. Croll DA, Acevedo-Gutierrez A, Tershy BR, Urban-Ramirez J (2001) The diving behavior of blue and fin whales: Is dive duration shorter than expected based on oxygen stores? Comparative Biochemistry & Physiology Part A, Molecular & Integrative Physiology 129A:797-809.
16. Panigada S, Zanardelli M, Canese S, Jahoda M (1999) How deep can baleen whales dive? Marine Ecology Progress Series 187:309-311.
17. Croll DA, Clark CW, Acevedo A, Tershy B, Flores S, Gedamke J, Urban J (2002) Bioacoustics: Only male fin whales sing loud songs. Nature 417:809.
18. Laist DW, Knowlton AR, Mead JG, Collet AS, Podesta M (2001) Collisions between ships and whales. Marine Mammal Science 17:35-75.
19. National Research Council (2005) Marine Mammal Populations and Ocean Noise: Determining When Noise Causes Biologically Significant Effects. Committee on Characterizing Biologically Significant Marine Mammal Behavior. National Academies Press, Washington, DC. 142 pages.
20. Barlow J, Cameron GA (2003) Field experiments show that acoustic pingers reduce marine mammal bycatch in the California drift gill net fishery. Marine Mammal Science 19:265-283.
21. Barlow J, NMFS-SWFSC, personal communication, March 2005
22. Baker CS, Lento GM, Cipriano F, Dalebout ML, Palumbi SR (2000) Scientific Whaling: Source of Illegal Products for Market? Science 290:1695-1696.
23. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Low Flying Aircraft Disturbance Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
24. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Acoustic Disturbance Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
25. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Marine Debris Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
26. Addressed in part by JMPR Wildlife Disturbance Issues - Marine Mammal, Seabird and Turtle Disturbance Action Plan: Commercial Harvest Related Disturbance Strategy. Joint Management Plan Review (JMPR). Proposed Action Plans. Draft report. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
27. Croll DA, Clark CW, Calambokidis J, Ellison WT, Tershy BR (2001) Effect of anthropogenic low-frequency noise on the foraging ecology of Balaenoptera whales. Animal Conservation 4:13-27.

References and Resources
Click here for images, reports, and links to other websites for this species.

Acknowledgement of Reviewers

Thank you to Don Croll and Jay Barlow for reviewing this report and providing helpful comments and corrections.

Content Last Modified: 12/2005

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