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Whale For A Tale: If The Oceans Die, We Die

Whale For A Tale: If The Oceans Die, We Die

By Arnab Saha & Ranifa Mondal (UG Students, Department of Life Sciences, Presidency University)


We live on a blue planet. 70% of the earth’s surface is water, out of which only a mere 5% is protected from damaging human activities. Whaling affects the world’s ecosystems. Whales are vital to the food chain, stabilising food flow and maintaining a healthy ocean. As such, the rapidly decreasing whale population will have major effects on the ocean’s ecosystem.

Harmful Anthropogenic Activities

Marine debris is choking our oceans, creating a devastating impact on marine ecosystems world-wide. The oceans are turning into a rubbish dump. “Marine litter is a pollution problem affecting thousands of marine species in all the world’s seas and oceans”. Tons of litters are ending up in the seas every day. Consumer items such as plastic bottles and straws, rubber balloons, aluminum cans, plastic bags, fishing gears such as line, nets, ropes, hooks and buoys lost or discarded at sea pose a danger to all marine life including birds, sharks, turtles and marine mammals, causing injury or death through drowning , entanglement, or starvation following ingestion. It’s also a serious health risk for humans, because microplastics ingested by marine animals absorb manmade toxins such as PCBs, DDT, BPA and mercury, whose effects are intensified as they pass up the food chain, making it another good reason to stop eating fish altogether. “Belugas had much higher levels than predicted from body size alone; levels increased with age in both sexes, although unloading by females through the placenta and/or lactation was evidenced by overall lower levels in females and very high burdens in some calves.” PCBs are a major reason that whales are becoming sterile. The United Nations Environmental Program estimated that a whopping 12.7 million metric tons of plastic made its way into the ocean in just one year. Oil spills kill indiscriminately. Offshore drilling accidents, blowouts and spills have caused some of the biggest manmade environmental disasters of our time, affecting marine wildlife and the livelihood of coastal communities. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico affected more than 14 species of whales and dolphins, killing more than 5,000 of these magnificent creatures. Noise from shipping, military sonar, and wind farm construction interfere with whale and dolphin communication, their ability to find food, and increase their stress levels. “Mass stranding events (MSEs) of beaked whales (BWs) were extremely rare prior to the 1960s but increased markedly after the development of naval mid-frequency active sonar (MFAS).Further research on BWs stranded in association with naval exercises demonstrated pathological findings consistent with decompression sickness (DCS). Increased stress levels impact their immune systems and ability to reproduce. Whales migrate large distances every year. They make low frequency sounds that could be heard hundreds of miles away a century ago. Modern ships generate enough noise from their engines and propellers to have reduced the range over which whales can communicate. The low frequency noise from ships travels so well in the ocean that it has raised the noise levels ten to one hundred times compared to a century ago. This means that a whale call that could have been heard hundreds of miles away now can only be heard tens of miles away. “Shipping noise altered part of the humpback whales’ singing behaviour.” “The song is thought to be a male breeding display and may serve either as an intra-sexual or an inter-sexual signal or both.” We do not know how far away whales need to communicate, but this reduction in range of communication could affect the ability of whales to find a mate or their young. Use of sonars has been shown to change their behaviour by beaching themselves and stranding themselves to death.

The Unnoticed Significance Of Whales: Ecosystem Engineers

A blue whale can eat as much as 4 tons of food per day, and what goes in must come out. When it comes to poop, whales go big. They often feed in the deep ocean and their poop brings those nutrients up to the surface, where they act as fertilizers, for shallow ecosystem. It’s estimated that sperm whales and the iron in their poop help sequester 200,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year by fecally fertilizing photosynthetic plankton. “The amounts of chlorophyll in the phytoplankton increase in proportion to the Fe added. It is concluded that Fe deficiency is limiting phytoplankton growth in these major-nutrient-rich waters.” Like all animals, whales eventually die. When whale carcasses, sometimes weighing more than a hundred tons, fall to the ocean’s dark depths, they can form mini-ecosystems called “whale falls”, sustaining countless deep-sea species for decades. “The falls of large whales (30–160 t adult body weight) yield massive pulses of labile organic matter to the deep-sea floor.”

Those small creatures devour everything from blubber to the bones. Whale vomit or ambergris is extremely valuable to humans in the perfume and cosmetics industry. The oceans are important for people and the planet, providing at least half of our oxygen, playing a major role in influencing our weather and regulating the climate. Whales play an integral role in the health of our oceans and the planet helping in global carbon and nutrient cycling. Whales transport nutrition from high nutrient waters to low nutrient waters. As the ocean’s gardeners, whales bring nutrients to phytoplankton which give us oxygen, sustainable fish stocks, and sequester carbon. Large amounts of carbon are carried to the seafloor when the enormous animals die and sink, which makes them even more significant in the face of global warming and climate change. As it turns out, whales help regulate and support a vast spectrum of marine organisms whose abundances increase or decrease in their presence. With such large metabolic demands in the great whales, for instance sperm and baleen, they consume an enormous quantity of fish and invertebrates, while they themselves are prey to other high trophic level creatures such as orcas. Thus these animals are actually vital components in the stabilization of marine ecosystems. “Rebuilding whale populations would remove 1.6×105 tons of carbon each year through sinking whale carcasses. Rebuilding the southern hemisphere blue whale population would sequester 3.6×106 tons C in living biomass. Assuming 82 tons C ha−1 of forest, the new blue whales would be equivalent to preserving 43,000 hectares of temperate forest, an area comparable in size to the City of Los Angeles.” Rebuilding all of the whale populations would store 8.7×106 tons C, equivalent to 110,000 hectares of forest or an area the size of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Experts say that despite of every effort, the populations of most species of whale won’t even reach half of their pre-whaling numbers by 2100. Statements like ‘save the whales, save the planet’ are not entirely farfetched.

Restoring What’s Damaged

In 1946 the International Convention for the regulation of whaling (ICRW) started regulating how many whales could be caught not to save them but to keep the whaling industry alive and safe. “In waters within 370 km (200 nautical miles) of the Aleutian Islands and north coastal Gulf of Alaska alone, a minimum of 62,858 whales and an estimated 1.8 million tonnes of whale biomass were taken between 1949 and 1969.” Because of the high commercial value of baleen and other whale body parts, blue whales were nearly exterminated. Then in 1986 The International Whaling Commission set up by the ICRW decided that there should be a pause in commercial whaling on all whale species and populations now known as the commercial whaling moratorium. Whaling could still occur but a special permit was needed for scientific whaling. However, some countries have refused to recognize the ban. Norway and Iceland continue commercial whaling, and the Faroe Islands continue to kill pilot whales and other cetaceans traveling through their coastal waters. Japan still famously kill hundreds of whales every year (333 in 2016) including 200 pregnant females by exploiting loopholes in the regulation under the guise of ‘scientific research’, a claim rejected by the IWC as well as the International Court of Justice and the Australian Federal Courts. Do these whalers actually kill whales for science or they are just crying science to support a tradition and black-market food source?

Poachers plunder marine life sanctuaries with impunity, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing goes unchecked in the high seas far from the eyes of international authorities and public scrutiny. International laws and agreements exist to protect ocean wildlife and marine habitats, but they can be difficult to enforce because of lack of political will, insufficient economic resources, or transnational boundaries that blur jurisdiction. “Recently, Japan has withdrawn from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) so is no longer subject to its rules, and has resumed commercial whaling.” If not for whaling, pollution and entanglement in fishing gear, some whales could live for over more than 100 years. “The greatest threats to current whale populations are likely mortality due to ship strikes and potentially reduced food supplies due to climate variability or competition with humans.”

Shipping lanes should be diverted to avoid crossing of whale migratory routes and their speeds should be regulated near any pods that might be in sight to avoid any mishaps as their biggest threat is getting struck and killed by ships.

As people understand the significance of maintaining whale populations, increase in conservation efforts remains a concern. Countries such as Japan, Norway, and Iceland can opt for alternatives to commercial whaling like ‘farming’ marine and freshwater species of plants, fish, and shellfish, in short practise sustainable aquaculture which can be the answer to a lot of the world’s desire for obtaining protein from the sea without the expense of whales. These wonderful marine mammals that are adored by people, holding an essential position in marine food webs, and now serve as important ecosystem engineers should be given protection. Today, thankfully many countries are joining hands to put global bans on whaling allowing the species to slowly rebound. Numerous protest movements and non-profit organizations and conservationist groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have since emerged in defence of these creatures, such as the well-respected Campaign Whale.


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  6. Nina Eriksen,Lee A. Miller, JakobTougaard& David A. Helweg)
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