Once a rallying cry of environmentalists and ocean lovers, the call to “Save the Whales!” has seemingly died down in recent years. At the 2010 meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the 88 member countries even discussed lifting the ban on commercial whaling. Though whaling is nearly extinct internationally—with the notable exceptions of Japan, Norway, and Iceland—this type of complacency may be premature.
There is no doubt that the prohibition on commercial whaling has allowed whale populations to recover—some more successfully than others, but human activities continue to pose a major threat to all cetaceans: whales, purposes, and dolphins.
Fishing. The past decades have seen a dramatic increase in the intensity of commercial fishing. While the whaling industry caught 39,000 animals in 1970, today we harm between 100,000 and 300,000 individuals annually by inadvertently catching them in fishing gear. North Atlantic Right Whales, the most endangered large whale, is especially susceptible to entanglement in nets and lines. Furthermore, overfishing of top predators—often the most highly desired and economically valuable fish—is altering ecosystems and food webs, placing stress on whale populations if they cannot find enough food to eat.
Noise. There has been much debate in recent years about the impact of seismic testing on all marine wildlife. Seismic testing, which involves sending out blasts 100,000 times louder than a jet engine, is used in offshore oil and gas exploration. Whales, which rely on echolocation to communicate and find prey, are particularly susceptible to the harmful impacts of sonar testing. While definitive connections can be hard to prove, these tests can cause hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, and even beach strandings and deaths. To join Oceana’s petition to stop seismic testing, please click here.
Climate change. Climate change is not only altering the ocean through ocean acidification, but also through warming trends that are reshaping marine ecosystems. Despite their colossal size, many whales feed on small species at the very bottom of the food chain. Melting ice in the Antarctic has exposed an abundance of krill, previously inaccessible to the resident humpback whales. While this may seem to benefit the whales in the short term, sea ice is critical to the krill’s life cycle. If warming trends continue, the krill will lose valuable habitat, and a crash in their population spells disaster for hungry humpbacks. And you may have seen the story unfolding earlier this week of the pod of orcas that were trapped by early ice flows in Hudson Bay. (Don’t worry, they are no longer trapped.)
Demand for whale meat—even in hold-out whaling countries like Japan—has declined dramatically in recent decades. In 2012, the global total of commercial whale capture was down to 1,000 individuals. But simply because they are no longer facing hunting on the scale of the 1970s does not mean that the whales are forever saved.
Whales are some of the longest-lived animals on earth and it takes many decades for populations to rebuild once depleted. Even though commercial whaling has been banned for almost fifty years, many populations in oceans around the world have yet to grow back to even 10% of what they once were. Sometimes the harmful impacts of fishing and other human-related activities might not be recognizable for generations, years after it is too late. These majestic creatures have become collateral damage of other destructive human activities, and if we are to truly answer the call to “Save the Whales!” we must not rest on our successes, but turn our focus from targeted hunting to these new, less tangible risks.