Gray whale in Arctic ice, north of Point Barrow

This gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, photographed north of Point Barrow in the Arctic, is one of 13 species of Great Whales.

Like most Great Whales, the gray whale has suffered from centuries of commercial whaling and is now critically endangered in the western North Pacific and extinct in the Atlantic. Today, some 70,000 remain - thanks largely to the moratorium on whaling agreed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986. However, some commercial whaling continues, mainly by whalers from Japan and Norway, under the guise of scientific research. Nearly 23,000 whales from five species have been killed in this way since the moratorium came into force.

An even bigger threat to the whales comes from other human activities, including entanglement in fishing gear, marine pollution with toxic chemicals, climate change, ship collisions and oil and gas developments in whale feeding grounds. Entanglement in fishing nets is a serious threat to all cetaceans, including dolphins and porpoises, killing 300,000 every year. All these problems are now to be tackled under the IWC's Berlin initiative, agreed in June 2003. Whale sanctuaries in the Southern and Indian Oceans, created in 1994 and 1979, also give some hope for the long-term future of these magnificent creatures.

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