Whales have fascinated humans for centuries. We see this reflected through literary works such as Moby Dick and through activities such as whale watching. Human fascination has only recently led to an effort to preserve whale populations.
Whales have been endangered for years, but are they making a comeback now?
Why are whales endangered?
Whales are endangered because of human activity. Human activity has manifested consequences such as ocean pollution and climate change which are both detrimental to whale populations.
Whales can get caught up in discarded fish nets which can then impact their ability to move. An inability to move can result in a whale's starvation. Other forms of pollution can also harm whales. Chemical pollution and oil spills can be toxic for whales and their habitats.
Climate change can also affect whales abilities to get food. Climate change impacts the ocean in many ways one of which is an imbalance in the food web. This can cause a shortage of prey for whales to eat. Overfishing, fishing to a point where the ecosystem is impacted, can also make it hard for whales to find enough food.
Another human activity that impacts whale population is the movement of large ships. If ships like cargo or cruise ships hit a whale the impact will most likely result in the death of that whale. As the number of these large ships increases so does the threat to whales as the likelihood they will hit a whale increases.
While pollution, boating, and overfishing all have had effects on the whale population by far the biggest contributor to whales endangered status has been commercial whaling.
What is whaling?
Whaling is the name for the practice of hunting and killing of whales. Whaling has existed since prehistoric times, but it didn’t become a problem until around the 17th century. Over time better technology was developed and more whales could be hunted.
But, why are whales hunted? Whales were used to make many products which made whaling a very lucrative industry. The oil from whales was used to make soap, lamp oil, and candles. Whales bones were fashioned into corsets, fishing hooks and umbrellas.
Whales were also hunted for food. In modern times many of these products are made from alternative sources, so whaling is not as much of a necessary or lucrative industry though it still exists in some places. Whaling while not the biggest threat to whales today has had the biggest total effect on whales endangered status to date.
How has whaling impacted whale populations? Whale populations before widespread commercial whaling were estimated to be around 200,000 to 300,000. After years of whaling there were around 2,300 whales in 1998. While this may seem like a grim difference since 1998 whale populations have been increasing between 2.4% and 8.4%.
Currently commercial whaling is illegal though some countries still engage in the practice. In 1931 the first international agreements were made and a couple years later an international whaling committee was formed to regulate whaling in the countries that signed the agreements.
Whaling was fully banned in 1986. This has greatly reduced the number of whales killed by whaling though there are still countries that object to the ban. Japan, Norway and Iceland all object to the prohibitions on whaling. In total these three countries have killed around 40,000 whales since the ban in 1986.
Japan has found a way around the whaling ban by killing whales under the pretense of science. Once the whale is killed they sell it rather than letting it go to waste.
Are whales making a comeback?
Different whale species are endangered to different extents. Humpback whales have made an incredible comeback in the past 50 years after nearly 200 years of whaling. In 1970 there were around 600 humpback whales migrating around the tip of South Africa. Last year scientists measured 30,000 humpback whales.
Blue whales have also started making a comeback. Blue whales are classified as critically endangered. It is estimated that blue whale populations decreased by 97% in the early 20th century. In 1960 the number of blue whales in Antarctica was estimated to be around 1,000.
In 2018 these populations have increased by nearly 2,000 blue whales. Blue whale populations have also increased to 55 whales off of the coast of South Georgia where they have traditionally been hunted.
Why are whales making a comeback?
Whales’ comeback can in large part be attributed to protective legislation. In the United States the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protect whale populations. MMPA was passed in 1972 and it makes hunting, hurting and harassing any marine animals illegal.
International laws like the aforementioned international whaling convention and the 1986 ban on whaling have also contributed to the comeback of whales.
Why is it so important that we protect whales?
Whales play many key roles in the ocean ecosystem. Whales provide a source of nutrients to phytoplankton through their poop. Phytoplankton are photosynthesizing organisms that take in hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide each year.
The nutrients that whales provide are necessary for phytoplankton to survive. In this way whales are indirectly responsible for the oxygen that we breathe everyday and are combating climate change. Whales also become a source of nutrient when they die. Lastly, whales are a key component of the ocean food web.