Why whales can help save our planet – if we let them
As Icelanders spend today assessing the damage caused by last night’s “double hurricane force” winds which battered their island, and people in north west England and southern Scotland begin the grim process of mopping up after widespread flooding in the wake of Storm Desmond, few are likely to link these extreme weather events with whales and whaling. Yet maybe the connection between this extreme weather and whales, the health of our oceans, and the ultimate fate of our planet, should give us all pause for thought.
This week in Paris, a life-size metal sculpture of a blue whale was erected on the Left Bank of the Seine to coincide with the UN Climate Conference. The sculpture is modelled upon ‘Bluebelle’, a blue whale who was killed in the South Atlantic in 1912. Although it is intended to prompt delegates to think about how the future of endangered species lies in their hands, it is an ironic reminder that only days ago, the Japanese whaling fleet, in brazen defiance of a ruling from the UN’s International Court of Justice (IJC), left port with a mission to kill minke whales in the Antarctic.
Bluebelle helps us remember that we are custodians of the planet and have a responsibility to protect all of its inhabitants, large and small. She is also a stark reminder of our mutual dependency.
And this is the crux of the matter – whales are valuable not only for their own sake, but for our sake, too.
Research suggests that some whale populations have declined by up to 90% over the past 300 years, while a recent study reveals that nearly 3 million whales were wiped out in whaling last century in what is likely to be the largest cull – in terms of total biomass – of any species in human history!
This year, 155 fin whales were killed by Icelandic whalers. At around 27m/86ft in length, fin whales are massive, the second largest animal on the planet. Despite their ‘endangered’ status, over 700 of these majestic creatures have been killed since 2006.
Why does this matter to us in climate terms? It matters because the intentional removal of whales from the ocean is essentially agreeing to increase carbon emissions. Whales play a significant role in marine ecosystems and their intentional removal is no more sustainable than deforestation in the Amazon.
Think of it this way – plants on land need to be fertilized to survive and produce the oxygen we need to breathe. Similarly, in the ocean there are microscopic, plant-like organisms called phytoplankton which produce approximately one-half of the earth’s oxygen. Like their cousins on land, phytoplankton use CO2, water, sunlight, and nutrients to produce their own food, a chemical reaction we know as photosynthesis. The byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen, which much of the rest of the planet relies. Phytoplankton must remain in the sunlit surface waters, called the photic zone, in order to access the sun’s energy to photosynthesize. However, many of the nutrients they need, like iron, do not remain free-floating in the photic zone. Instead, these nutrients are pulled down by gravity to the abyss where they would be lost, if it were not for whales.
According to Nicole et al. (2010), whale faeces are rich in iron, an essential nutrient for phytoplankton colonies to reproduce at a rapid rate, or “bloom”. This faecal iron is a direct result of the iron-rich krill on which whales feed. Through the process of digestion, the iron is “freed” from the krill and made available as nutrients to phytoplankton, on which krill themselves feed, creating an endlessly positive feedback loop for a healthy marine ecosystem.
Researchers from the University of Vermont and Harvard University have determined that because whales feed at depth but defecate at the surface, they create a “whale pump” for nutrients. This cycles the useable nitrogen back to the photic zone where it can be used to “fertilize” phytoplankton, the very base of the marine food web. The authors found the role of whales so significant that they concluded that the “full recovery from one serious anthropogenic impact on marine ecosystems, namely the dramatic depletion of whale populations, can help to counter the impacts of another now underway—the decline in nutrients for phytoplankton growth caused by ocean warming.” In simpler terms, allowing whale populations to recover can help fight climate change.
Data supporting the direct link between healthy whale populations in the fight against climate change continues to grow. Research published in 2014 estimated that rebuilding the Southern Hemisphere blue whale population “would be equivalent to preserving 43,000 hectares of temperate forest, an area comparable in size to the City of Los Angeles”.
Given the mounting scientific evidence documenting the important role that whales play in combating climate change, it is ironic to hear the world’s top three whaling nations claim to take this issue seriously.
- Iceland has determined that one of its 10 key actions to combat climate change will be afforestation and revegetation. Yet Icelandic whalers have killed a total of 184 fin and minke whales this year.
- Earlier this year Norway’s parliament approved legislation to reduce climate change. Yet Norwegian whalers killed 660 minke whales this year.
- Japan is attending the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris with a commitment to set ‘concrete policies’ to address carbon emissions. Yet its whaling ships are out once more in pursuit of whales.
The life-size statue of Bluebelle should not only be a symbol to the UN delegates of the impact of climate change on the world’s species, but should also be reminder that whales are a significant part of the solution.
Whaling is not sustainable.
Whales, however, can make the future sustainable for us all.
Vanessa Williams-Grey & Regina Asmutis-Silvia