Ocean Week: Making a whale of a difference to coastal communities, the ocean and planet Earth
Some coastal communities view whales as the guardians of the ocean, a special value attached to the marine giants which is not misplaced.
Whales provide incredible services for the ocean and coastal communities, playing a role deemed so important that some scientists have coined them “ecosystem engineers”. It turns out that whales do more than guard the ocean – they nurture it.
By diving to the ocean depths to feed and through releasing faecal plumes, whales perform a pump-like function which carries important nutrients such as nitrogen and iron to surface waters. Whales also transfer nutrients across the lengths of the ocean when migrating great distances to feed and calve. This provides nourishment for drifting phytoplankton – the base of the food web upon which all marine species depend.
This great whale ‘conveyor belt’ function could substantially enhance ocean productivity, allowing fish stocks and marine biodiversity to flourish.
Whales also play a role in the ocean’s carbon cycle, which in turn could help limit the impacts of climate change. Much as forests do on land, these ocean giants help ‘capture’ carbon. There are estimates that if whale populations were rebuilt to pre-whaling numbers, the species could remove the carbon equivalent generated by driving 125,000 cars for a year.
Furthermore, as large and long-lived creatures at the top of the food chain, whales bring stability to ocean ecosystems. Pioneering scientific research suggests this can make marine systems less vulnerable to external pressures.
On top of these ecosystem benefits, whales and dolphins can provide a boost to coastal tourism as a major wildlife attraction. Whale watching is a global industry, valued at about $2 billion per year according to a 2009 study. Responsible whale watching guidelines and principles have been established by organisations including the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
Despite making a huge contribution to the functioning of a healthy ocean and coastal economies, these natural guardians themselves need protecting. It is estimated that three million whales were killed during the heyday of commercial whaling heyday in the 20th century, with some populations reduced by up to 90 per cent of their original size. A ban on commercial whaling enacted by the IWC in 1986 bought many species back from the brink of extinction, but most populations remain at a fraction of their former size; as long-lived creatures with slow rates of reproduction, the full recovery of whale populations advances at a crawling pace.
Despite the global moratorium on commercial whaling, three countries have between them killed more than 50,000 whales since 1986 – Iceland, Japan and Norway. Direct hunting it just one of a growing list of risks faced by global populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
And while their habitats are being devastated by the impacts of human activities, not least climate change and pollution, whales face direct risks from vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing nets. It’s clear that the resumption of commercial whaling, as some countries continue to push for, would add an unbearable burden.
The cumulation of non-hunting risks is already pushing some populations to the edge. As climate change has shifted the range of their food, the North Atlantic right whale has been forced into busy maritime areas, leading to a population collapse as they become victims of ship strikes and collateral damage in fishing activities.
Through our campaigns, we work to reduce pressures such as plastic pollution, climate change and bycatch. We call for the ban on commercial whaling to be maintained and encourage anti-whaling countries to challenge attempts to undermine its status. We engage with international governments about the importance of enhancing marine conservation, for example through supporting the establishment of whale sanctuaries at IWC meetings.
At the upcoming Commission meeting this September, we will be supporting the establishment of a major new whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Healthy seas need healthy whale populations. Whales have rightfully earned their important marine status and during this Ocean Week we should celebrate the incredible services they provide.
It is a reminder that the campaign to save the whale is also a campaign to protect the lifeblood of planet Earth: our ocean.