Whales are amazing, and also provide amazing benefits to our oceans and human society

By Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, PhD student at the Department of Biology, Northern Arizona University, Visiting scientist in the GEMM Lab working on the gray whale physiology and ecology project  

Whales are among the most amazing and enigmatic animals in the world. Whales are not only fascinating, they are also biologically special. Due to their key ecological role and unique biological traits (i.e., their large body size, long lifespans, and sizable home ranges), whales are extremely important in helping sustain the entire marine ecosystem.

Working towards the conservation of marine megafauna, and large charismatic animals in general, is often seen as a mere benevolent effort that conservationist groups, individuals, and governments do on behalf of the individual species. However, mounting evidence demonstrates that restoring populations of marine megafauna, including large whales, can help buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses like human driven CO2 emissions and global change due to their ability to sequester carbon in their bodies (Pershing et al. 2010). Furthermore, whales can enhance primary production in the ocean through their high consumption and defecation rates, which ultimately provides nutrients to the ecosystem and improves fishery yields (Roman-McCarthy, 2010; Morissette et al. 2012).

Relationships between humans and whales have a long history, however, these relationships have changed. For centuries, whales were valued in terms of the number of oil barrels they could yield, and the quality of their baleen and meat. In the North Atlantic, whaling started as early as 1000 AD with “shore whaling” of North Atlantic right whales by Basque whalers. This whaling was initially limited to the mother and calve pairs that were easy to target due to their coastal habits and the fact that calves are more vulnerable and slower (Reeves-Smith, 2006). Once the calving populations of near-shore waters off Europe were depleted, offshore whaling began developing. Whalers of multiple nations (including USA, British, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Dutch, among others), targeted whales around the world, mainly impacting the gray whale populations, and all three right whale species along with the related bowhead whale. Later, throughout the phase of modern whaling using industrialized methods, the main target species consisted of the blue, fin, humpback, minke, sei and sperm whale (Schneider- Pearce, 2004).

By the early twentieth century, many of the world´s whale populations where reduced to a small fraction of their historical numbers, and although pre-whaling abundance of whale stocks is a subject of debate, recent studies estimate that at least the 66%, and perhaps as high as 90% for some whale species and populations (Branch-Williams 2006; Christensen, 2006), where taken during this period. This systematic and serial depletion of whale papulations reduced the biomass and abundance of great whales around the world, which has likely altered the structure and function of the oceans (Balance et al. 2006; Roman et al. 2014; Croll, et al. 2006).

After centuries of unregulated whale hunting, commercial whaling was banned in the mid-twentieth century. This ban was the result of multiple factors including reduced whale stocks below the point where commercial whaling would be profitable, and a fortunate shift in public perception of whales and the emergence of conservation initiatives (Schneider- Pearce, 2004). Since this moratorium on whaling, several whale populations have recovered around the world, and some populations that were listed as endangered have been delisted (i.e., the Eastern North Pacific gray whale) and some populations are estimated to have re-bounced to their pre-whaling abundance.

Although, the recovery of some populations has motivate some communities or nations to obtain or extend their whaling quotas (see Blog Post by Lisa Hildebrand), it is important to acknowledge that the management of whale populations is arguably one of the most complicated tasks, and is distinguished from management of normal fisheries due to various biological aspects. Whales are long living mammals with slow reproduction rates, and on average a whale can only produce a calf every two or three years. Hence, the gross addition to the stock rarely would exceed 25% of the number of adults (Schneider- Pearce, 2004), which is a much lower recovery rate that any fish stock. Also, whales usually reach their age of sexual maturity at 6-10 years old, and for many species there are several uncertainties about their biology and natural history that make estimations of population abundance and growth rate even harder to estimate.

Fig 1: Human relationship with whales has changed through history. Once valued for their meat and oil, now they are a natural attraction that amaze and attract crowds to whale watching destinations all over the globe. Photo: Stephen Johnson, Península Valdés-Argentina.

Moreover, while today´s whales are generally not killed directly by hunting, they are exposed to a variety of other increasing human stressors (e.g., entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, shipping noise, and climate change). Thus, scientists must develop novel tools to overcome the challenges of studying whales and distinguish the relative importance of the different impacts to help guide conservation actions that improve the recovery and restoration of whale stocks (Hunt et al. in press). With the restoration of great whale populations, we can expect positive changes in the structure and function of the world’s oceans (Chami et al. 2019; Roman et al. 2010).

So, why it is worth keeping whales healthy?

Whales facilitate the transfer of nutrients by (1) releasing nutrient-rich fecal plumes near the surface after they have feed at depth and (2) by moving nutrients from highly productive, polar and subpolar latitude feeding areas to the low latitude calving areas (Roman et al. 2010). In this way, whales help increase the productivity of phytoplankton that in turn support zooplankton production, and thus have a bottom up effect on the productivity of many species including fish, birds, and marine mammals, including whales. These fertilization events can also facilitate mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change. The amount of iron contained in the whales’ feces can be 10 million times greater than the level of iron in the marine environment, triggering important phytoplankton blooms, which in turn sequester thousands of tons of carbon from, and release oxygen to, the atmosphere annually (Roman et al. 2016; Smith et al. 2013; Willis, 2007). Furthermore, when whales die, their massive bodies fall to the seafloor, making them the largest and most nutritious source of food waste, which is capable of sustaining a succession of macro-fauna assemblages for several decades, including some invertebrate species that are endemic to whale carcasses (Smith et al. 2015).

Figure 2. The figure shows a conceptual model of the “whale pump”. From Roman-McCarthy, 2010.

Despite the several environmental services that whales provide, and the positive impact on local economies that depend on whale watching tourism, which has been valued in millions of dollars per year (Hoyt E., 2001), the return of whales and other marine mammals has often been implicated in declines in fish populations, resulting in conflicts with human fisheries (Lavigne, D.M. 2003). Yet there is insufficient direct evidence for such competition (Morissette et al. 2010). Indeed, there is evidence of the contrary: In ecosystem models where whale abundances are reduced, fish stocks show significant decreases, and in some cases the presence of whales in these models result in improved fishery yields. Consistent with these findings, several models have shown that alterations in marine ecosystems resulting from the removal of whales and other marine mammals do not lead to increases in human fishery yields (Morissette et al. 2010; 2012). Although the environmental services and benefits provided by great whales, which potentially includes the enhancement of fisheries yields, and enhancement on ocean oxygen production and capturing carbon, are evident and make a strong argument for improved whale conservation, it is overwhelming how little we know about many aspects of their lives, their biology, and particularly their physiology.

Figure 3: Whales are the most fascinating animals in the world, but they are not only amazing animals. They are also extremely important in sustaining the entire marine ecosystem. Photo: Alejandro Fernández Ajó -Instituto de Conservación de ballenas.

This lack of knowledge is because whales are really hard to study. For many years research was limited to the observation of the brief surfacing of the whales, yet most of their lives occurs beneath the surface and were completely unknown. Fortunately, new technologies and the creativity of whale researchers are helping us to better understand many aspects of their lives that were cryptic to us even a decade ago. I am committed to filling some of these knowledge gaps. My research examines how different environmental and anthropogenic impacts affect whale health, and particularly how these impacts may relate to cases of large whale mortalities and declines in whale populations. I am applying novel methods in conservation physiology for measuring hormone levels that promise to improve our understanding of the relationship between different (extrinsic and intrinsic) stressors and the physiological response of whales. Ultimately, this research will help address important conservation questions, such as the causes of unusual whale mortality events and declines in whale populations.


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