Whaling And The Impact Of Humans On Whale Population

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The influence of human behavior on our planet is evident through the effects of climate change. Many ecosystems are destroyed and animals brought to extinction because of our thoughtlessness. Only recently have we as species begun to notice, and therefore, try to bring about change in our habits. The largest ecosystem that exists is the vast ocean, as its takes up 70% of our planet. However, despite its massive size and depths, it is still subject to our pollution and recklessness. The ocean is actually the most affected ecosystem in the world. Scientists have found that marine animals and ecosystems are those most at risk of extinction. Knowing this, it is crucial that we direct our attention towards the importance of oceanic creatures and our impact on their lives.

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Whales are creatures of great magnificence and mysteriousness. It is almost unbelievable how little we know about these animals considering they are the largest in the world. In particular the blue whale. The passion I have for this topic arose from my curiosity about the blue whale. How is it that scientists still do not have significant information on such a gigantic beast? How can, what some may consider a modern day dinosaur, travel around our world undetected? Blue whales can weigh up to 200 tons or 400,000 lbs and range from 82 to 105 feet, the largest of any animal to have ever lived on Earth. The exact migration pattern, mating patterns, and breeding grounds of these animals have long been unknown to scientists. It is astonishing to me that such an animal is one of the most mysterious on the planet. The reason behind our lack of knowledge of the blue whale, and other whales, is most likely due to human behavior. Blue whales were heavily hunted and almost driven to extinction, which explains their lack of abundance in numbers.

In order to be environmentally conscious towards efforts in whale conservation, it is first important to be educated on the subject matter. Many times we think of whales as just one species, however there are actually numerous species of whales, that each have a very vast and complex lineage. Each different species of whale may have a significantly different impact on its respective ecosystem. It important to be able to differentiate these different species so we can channel our energy more effectively into preserving their different ecosystems. Whales are a member of the Cetacean family, which also includes dolphins and porpoises, and can be divided into two sub categories, Mysticeti and Odontoceti. Mysticeti whales are whales that have baleen plates in place of teeth, while Odontoceti whales are toothed whales.

Baleen whales are the largest animals on earth, but feed on some of the smallest creatures (National Oceanic). The baleen plates within their mouths are what allows them to filter their prey (WDC). The Mysticeti sub category can be divided further into four families, right, rorqual, gray, and pygmy right. The first family, the right family, consists of four of its own species. These whale are bowheaded and referred to as “tanks” because of their lack of gracefulness as they move through the water. They have the longest baleen plates of any mysticeti whale, which they use to “skim feed” on prey like zooplankton (National Oceanic). Bowhead whales are also known to eat up to 100 tons of crustaceans each year (WWF). Almost all species in the bowhead family are listed as endangered. Another family, the rorquals, contain eight different species, including the over hunted humpback whale, and the mysterious blue whale. Although massive, unlike bowhead whales, rorquals move effortless through the ocean. The gray whale family only contains one species, the gray whale. This species lives in and therefore influences ecosystems of more coastal and shallow waters. Because of whaling, the gray whale is on the verge of extinction due. The last family, the pygmy rights, also only contain one species. The pygmy right whales, like the blue whales, are lesser known by scientists and many of their habits remain a mystery (WDC). There are only a few dozen known whales of this species in existence. All other species of whales are toothed whales.

Odontoceti, or toothed, whales comprise 90% of all cetacean species (National Oceanic). The toothed whale subcategory can also be divided into four families: The family kogiidae, monodontidae, physeteridae, and ziphiidae (WDC). The kogiidae family contains only two small species of whales, the pygmy sperm whale and the dwarf sperm whale. Only recently has data about these whales begun to accumulate, however it is known that they mainly feed on squid (National Oceanic). The monodontidae family of whales are also known as white whales. Both with large round foreheads, belugas and narwhals are the only two species that are in the white whale family (WDC). Narwhals are colloquially referred to as “the unicorns of the sea” due to their long protruding tusks. What may not be commonly known is that this tusk is actually an “enlarged tooth with sensory capability and up to 10 million nerve endings inside” (WWF). This tooth can grow up to ten feet long and is said to be used to stun their prey, arctic cod (National Oceanic). The famous sperm whale, as described in the classic novel Moby Dick, is the only species that comprises the physeteridae family. It is also the largest of the toothed whales (WDC). The last family of whales in the odontoceti subcategory, are ziphiidae whales. This family is composed of 21 different species of beaked whales (WDC).

All of the different species of whales are unique from one another and therefore have unique effects on their different ecosystems. Because whales have such a long life span scientists can use them to help better predict and understand marine ecosystems. Baleen and sperm whales comprise the largest animals on earth. Because of their massive size and massive appetites these whales are the “ocean’s ecosystem engineers”. On the food chain whales serve as both predators and prey. They feed on many kinds of fish and crustaceans, but themselves can be prey, when they are calves, to predators such as killer whales and sharks. By feeding on prey, whales help to control overpopulation. For example, blue whales can consume up to 40 million krill per day, which helps to ensuring a balanced ecosystem. Blue whales will dive to great depths to feed on krill, when they return to the surface for air, they release their waste. Their feces acts as fertilizer carrying nutrients through the water. This process is called a ‘whale pump” and supports plankton growth. This process is also applied as they migrate far distances through the ocean. Whales can also provide habitats for other animals. When they die their carcasses, storing carbon dioxide, drop to the ocean floor where they provide a home for smaller species. As such enormous creatures, it is no surprise that whales have such a large influence on their ecosystem in the ocean. For this reason, it is crucial to work towards conserving whales rather than continuing to harm them through whaling activities and pollution.

Throughout history humans have had a detrimental influence on whales. Humans have diminished species of whales by directly killing them for economic reasons, and indirectly killing them through pollution. Despite the practice of whaling now being considered wrong and illegal, it still continues to occur in many areas around the world. Though whaling in itself can be blamed for the dangerously small percentage of whales that exist today, we as a species still contribute everyday to the destruction of whales and their habitats through pollution. Almost every individual who consumes any plastic product, holds some level of responsibility for the negative impact we have on the environment. Air pollution from cars and by other means has increased CO2 levels causing ocean waters to warm, permanently changing and damaging marine habits. Though as individuals our impact may seem small relative to the bigger picture, if each person made a change in their daily habits, we would have cleaner planet. A recent research study suggests that if we allow whales to return to their former numbers it will result in a richer more productive ecosystem.

Humans have been said to have begun whaling as early as 3,000BC. The evidence for such historic whaling has been determined through the discovery of ancient harpoons. Because whaling may have begun so long ago, it has become ingrained into our culture, and throughout history become considered a valuable part of our economy. Though whaling may have occurred in 3,000 BC its commonality did not happen until the 17th century.. The growth of the whaling industry in the 17th century was due to a high demand for whale goods such as oil, and an increase in whaling technology. The demand for oil increased further throughout the 18th and 19th centuries due to an industrial boom. By the turn of the 20th century, more than 50,000 whales were being killed annually.

The success of this industry has caused extreme negative effects to whales. Whaling has caused a significant decrease in whale populations as whole, and today remain at an all time low. One example is the grey whale, because of whaling there are now only two species left in the grey whale family (WDC). Since whales have such an important role in the balance of marine ecosystems, their deaths can cause serious effects. Whale calves such as baleen and sperm whale provided a main source of prey for orcas. However due to the serious implications of whaling during World War II, the number of these kinds of prey have dropped significantly, causing orcas to search for food elsewhere. Orcas have turned to their secondary food source, sea lions and seals, decreasing their populations significantly as well (Dye, Lee). Scientists believe it is possible that “commercial whaling in the north Pacific Ocean set off one of the longest and most complex ecological chain reactions” to have ever occurred. Sperm whales are also well known as a species greatly affected worldwide by whaling. Though their numbers are increasing, they are still below 20th century population levels. The novel Moby Dick, depicts a true story where a group of sailors were out hunting sperm whales, when one of the whales retaliated, destroying the men’s ship. It is examples like these that reveal the sad truth of how heavily ingrained whaling practices are in our society.

Though extreme efforts have been taken to end the practice, whaling and violence against whales still occurs today. The IWC (International Whaling Commission) banned the practice of whaling commercially in 1986 (Whale Facts), however there is a loophole that the Japanese have “notoriously exploited”. The Japanese participate today in what is described as “scientific whaling”, which is allowed under the ban for the purpose of obtaining whale management data. In the past 25 years the Japanese have killed more than 10,000 minke whales claiming it is for research, however there is no evidence that the whales have been used for any management data purposes. Aboriginal whaling is also legal and is practiced by Alaskans and Greenlanders, though this form of whaling may be less harmful (WDC). Despite serious efforts to regulate whaling, it is evident that there is still a significant amount of hunting that occurs. Some whales, like humpback, are beginning to repopulate, but others such as the blue whale are struggling to recover.

Though whale populations are beginning to grow through the efforts of the International Whaling Commision, whales are now under other threats. Humans emit a great number of pollutants, the cause of climate change, which then effects whales. Global warming produces more acidic oceans, killing whale food sources such as krill and fish. The over emission of nitrogen into the atmosphere, is also harmful to whale ecosystems. Cars emit nitrogen in the form of nitric oxide and agricultural practices emit nitrogen contained in ammonia. The excess production of nitrogen causes the overgrowth of aquatic plants and algae, which “deplete oxygen levels [for other marine animals] when they die and decompose”. Global warming also reduces the amount of arctic ice, affecting the habitats of many whale species (WWF). Another form of pollution, noise pollution, from oil and gas drilling and military activity can put whales in danger and cause them to end up stranded on coastlines (WDC). Though seismic noises can kill whales, there are no current international standards to regulate this form of pollution (WDC).

In addition to air and noise pollution, the pollution of plastic waste in our ocean is a serious threat to the lives of whales. Up to 13 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year, this level of plastic can be deadly (WDC). Whales often end up consuming large amounts of plastic waste and are killed because of it. 56% of all whale and dolphin species have been recorded consuming plastic found in the ocean. A recent example is the sperm whale that washed up dead on the shores on Indonesia. When investigating the content of this whale’s stomach, scientists found that it had consumed 13.2 lbs of plastic consisting of, 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip flops, and a bag full of string (Stories of Animals). Because the most common prey of the sperm whale is squid, it is no surprise that this whale had consumed so many plastic bags, perhaps mistaking them for squid or octopus (Stories of Animals). Another recent example is the pilot whale that was found struggling on the cost of Thailand. The whale ended up dying and scientists found 18 lbs of plastic waste, including 80 plastic bags, in the whale’s stomach. When whales consume this amount of plastic it makes it impossible for them to ingest any nutritious food. Squid are also the main food source for pilot whales. Not only are whales killed from consuming plastic, they can also die when they become tangled in fishing gear and nets, this is referred to as “bycatch”. Bycatch causes hundreds of thousands of slow and painful deaths by drowning animals each year. Because of their smaller size, many pygmy right whales have been found entangled in fishing gear.

It is crucial for us humans to recognize what we can do to reduce our pollution and help to conserve whales and their ecosystems. Many organizations are already trying their best to conserve whales and other marine life. Since the ban of commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commision, many species of whales still exist today and are on their way towards population recovery. In addition, it seems that the practice of unauthorized commercial whaling is on a downward trend due to the low profit margin of selling whale parts. In its place, a new industry is on the rise, the whale watching industry. The whale watching industry is now worth billions of dollars annually, replacing economic incentives to kill whales with economic incentives to observe whales. The whale watching industry also helps to bring awareness to the current condition of whales and their protection. The World Wildlife Fund is also working to help conserve whale wildlife. The World Wildlife fund “documents and protects critical feeding and breeding areas and migration routes of whales”. They work with whale sanctuaries and work to shift shipping lanes and seismic activities that can be known to disrupt whale feeding grounds. The WWF also strives to save stranded whales by offering stranding rescue workshops ti local residents. The WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) has worked for 20 years trying to stop the number of deaths caused by nets. They work with governments to strengthen the strictness of laws that are meant to reduce deaths by bycatch. The WDC also works alongside scientists and fishermen to find safer methods of fishing. They fund scientists to develop new technologies that can help marine animals detect debris and work with fishermen to help them avoid bycatch.

Despite the efforts of all of these organizations, each of them still acknowledge that they need the help of us as individuals to make any significant changes. People can make a significant difference in whale and other marine life conservation by simply altering our daily habits. One of the most important things we can do is reduce our plastic consumption and recycle plastic goods. Over 90% of plastics are not recycled and end up in the ocean. On a small scale level, say no to plastic when possible such as plastic straws. At grocery and retail stores opt to use reusable bags and avoid items wrapped in plastic. Use a reusable water bottle, and bring a reusable coffee mug when you go out to buy coffee. Additionally, be sure to recycle all plastic trash in the home, and pick up any plastic found in nature. The University of Connecticut is one example of a movement towards less plastic consumption. UConn has ended the use of plastic straws in its dining services location, replacing them with paper straws. UConn has also implemented a system where consumers at the bookstore are rewarded for opting out of using a plastic bag.

Not only are whales negatively affected by human behavior, all other species and ecosystems are as well. Because we have such great influence on the planet, we humans need to learn that we are not alone and that every life is equally valuable. Humans have a tendency to believe that our economies and cultures are more important than the future of the planet. In order to preserve the whales and every other living organism we must change our mindset from short term problems such as the stock exchange, to long term ones like our environmental impact. 

16 August 2021

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