While it may seem obvious today, it wasn’t always clear to scientists and everyday people that humankind could, with persistence, destroy an entire species, such as whales. To many, it was unthinkable that any creature could disappear off the planet, much less one as large and crucial as the whale.
Luckily and unluckily, today we know that there is no force preserving balance in our world. Our actions have consequences and thankfully, worldwide changes in hunting, polluting, drilling, and military practices have started to make the ocean a safer place for whales to live and breed.
Climate, Hunting, and Pollution
Before discussing why whales are endangered, it’s important to understand that it’s not just one kind of whale that has reached the edge of extinction. From blue, grey, and bowhead whales, to beluga and sperm whales, the world’s entire population is at some kind of risk. There are numerous threats to the world’s whale population. At the top of the list are human-caused climate change and commercial whaling.
Although it may seem hard to believe, and despite a ban on commercial whaling and the products that hunters, traders, and buyers try to distribute and purchase, over 1,000 whales are killed each year. The three biggest offenders are Iceland, Norway, and Japan. The latter has gained some notoriety for its “scientific” hunting boats that are used as a cover for hunting whales for food.
Unfortunately, the IWC (International Whaling Commission) has no control over what Japan does or does not do in its own waters. In July of 2019, Japan admitted that it was going to return to commercial whale hunting in addition to its “research”. This was after the country was unable to convince the IWC that it is possible to hunt whales sustainably, something scientists believe is untenable due to the continued instability of the population. Despite this terrible news, Japan is confined to its own waters and can no longer hunt in Antarctica as it did under while a member of the IWC and under the guise of doing research on whale populations.
Surprisingly or not, around the same period that Japan pulled out of the IWC a study found that Norway is killing more whales than Japan or Iceland. The country has continued to ignore the moratorium on whale hunting and has in fact increased its quota to hunt 1,278 whales in 2018.
In addition to hunting, the warming of Arctic and Antarctic waters is contributing to a change in whale habitats. With the loss of sea ice, animals move, plants grow differently, and currents can change. This is something that, of course, affects more than just whales. These animals, along with many others, are forced to migrate longer distances than previously necessary in order to find food for themselves and their babies.
Unfortunately, there are more human practices that are putting whales at risk. Pollution of the oceans with runoff and material waste can be deadly, specifically, the ingestion of debris and trash dumps. Oil and gas along with the use of various ships (recreational, commercial, and others), as well as noise pollution are also problematic.
Why Do Whales Matter?
Whales are a critical part of ocean ecosystems. They are huge, and rightly occupy a place at the top of the food chain. If you can’t appreciate them for their sheer beauty, grace, and power, it’s important to know that they also place a critical role in removing carbon from the atmosphere, approximately 33 tons of carbon dioxide on an average year.
Unfortunately, for some the only value whales have is what they can provide, from meat to traditional medicinals.
Marine Conservation Groups
There are many wonderful conservation organizations on the front lines, fighting back against Japanese, Norwegian, and Icelandic whale hunters as well as the causes of climate change. One of the biggest and best-known organizations is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which gained fame as the focus of the show Whale Wars. Their stated mission is to “end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species”. They are known for their policy of direct-action. This means that they actively try to expose illegal behavior, confront Japanese whaling vessels, and put themselves between the ships and the whales.
Credit: Boris Niehaus
Another popular organization takes a different approach, the group Save the Whales has the following mission statement: “To persevere and protect the ocean and its inhabitants.” This group works to educate and teach young people about the importance of marine ecosystems.