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Group of pilot whales underwater

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Whales are our climate allies – meet the scientists busy proving it

At Whale and Dolphin Conservation, we're working hard to bring whales and the ocean into climate conversations at the highest levels. I lead WDC's 'Green Whale' team and this week I'm at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon talking to policymakers about the vital roles whales play in our fight against the climate crisis.

In recent months we've been analyzing what we know about how whales help keep the ocean, and therefore our planet, a stable and healthy place to live. We've also been identifying knowledge gaps and gathering the scientific evidence we need to prove that we need to save the whales to save the world.

 

? Christopher Swann Christopher Swann

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Climate engineers

We know that whales feed in the depths of the ocean and poo at the surface, and in doing this they bring nutrients up from the deep. Scientists call this the 'whale pump'. These nutrients stimulate the growth of tiny marine plants called phytoplankton that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

We also know that when they die, whales take huge amounts of carbon down the dark depths where it can be locked away for thousands of years. But what we don't have is the amount of data that we do for other things that everyone knows are important for the planet, like trees and bees.

Filling knowledge gaps

All the studies show that whales and dolphins are an essential part of a healthy system, but to unlock the changes in policy that will lead to better protection, we need to learn more, and quickly, given the urgency of the climate crisis.

Last year WDC co-convened an international workshop to understand what science we already have and identify knowledge gaps. Following that, we have been working with some of the world's leading whale scientists to start filling in those gaps.

Collecting poo

We are co-funding an exciting project led by Dr Heidi Pearson from the University of Alaska Southeast to gather field data on the 'whale pump' from a population of humpback whales.

Spreading nutrients on migrations

We have also co-funded Dr Joe Roman and his colleagues to produce a paper on the 'great whale conveyor belt', to quantify the nutrients being transported by gray, right and humpback whales via their migrations.

These projects will advance our knowledge, enabling us to quantify more accurately the extent to which whales are contributing to these vital processes. Crucially, they will add to the evidence base we have, meaning we can present stronger arguments to protect whales.

More proof means better protection

This is just the start. Here at WDC, we are scaling up our ambition to fund and collaborate on more projects like these as part of a holistic research program. Projects that will give us the data that we need from out at sea, but also projects that will help make that data meaningful and accessible so it can inform high level international policy processes and decisions. We hope to announce more projects soon, demonstrating how WDC is committed to the 'save the whales, save the world' Green Whale concept, which we know has the potential to unlock a shift change in the protection of whales and dolphins and climate crisis action.

As with all science, we will never answer all the questions. Answers usually take us from one stage to another but open up new questions along the way. For example, with trees, we know a lot about how they draw carbon out of the atmosphere, but we are still very much learning about the vital role they play underneath the ground. But every answer shrinks the gaps, and the fewer gaps there are, the stronger the case becomes. More is known about the climate roles of coastal habitats like seagrass, mangrove forests and coral reefs which has led to large areas of them being protected. So as we present more evidence about whales, we can get more areas protected for them and reduce threats like overfishing, entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes and ocean noise.

Fin whales in the Gulf of California ? Christopher Swann Fin whales in the Gulf of California, Christopher Swann

Call of duty

We know we have a moral duty to restore populations of whales after the barbaric slaughter of millions of them in the industrial whaling days. Now we are showing that we urgently need to create the conditions that will allow whales to thrive, repopulate and return to areas where they've not been present for hundreds of years. We must help them to help us in these dark times of climate and biodiversity crises. More whales means a healthy ocean, and you can't have a healthy planet without it. We need to bring together people from right across the spectrum, but it must start, as any good project does, with science and research.

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