Greenland's dwindling whale population

Greenland's humpback whale herd - the chief food source for an estimated 700 to 800 of the island's Eskimos - faces extinction by the year 2000.

This is a conclusion drawn by Ocean Research and Education Society (ORES) researchers, who recently returned to Boston from their second expedition to study the island's whale population.

''We estimate this population at 200. If the Eskimos continue to kill their quota of 10 humpbacks a year, the population will reach zero by the turn of the century,'' says ORES's chief scientist, Ken Balcomb.

To maintain the population, the Eskimos should be allowed to take less than half of what they now can, he says. Mothers bear calves once every three years. A calf matures between six and eight years. So repopulation is slow.

Dr. George Nichols, president of ORES, says that further reducing the rate at which the humpbacks are killed may be a challenge because the Eskimos have hunted the animals for centuries.

''They are the peoples' chief food source. We can't tell them they can't hunt ,'' he says.

According to the Danish government, which controls Greenland, 700 to 800 islanders out of a population of 50,000 (10,000 of whom are Danish), have subsisted on marine animals for thousands of years.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC), which includes Denmark among its members, recently decided to ban all commercial whaling in three years. But this ban doesn't include hunting done by the Greenland Eskimos.

Dr. Nichols says, ''The Greenlanders will control the problem when shown it is a problem.''

Officials at the Danish Consulate in New York had no comment on the problem because their government won't get the results of the study until the next IWC meeting, scheduled for early next summer.

ORES was the first organization to sponsor a voyage of this type to Greenland. It plans to return to Greenland next year to try to confirm the results of this year's trip.

ORES discoveries, combined with studies by such organizations as Greenpeace, the Gloucester Fishermen's Museum, and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, have alerted the IWC to the danger humpback whales and other species face.

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