one green planet
one green planet

Perhaps surprisingly, there are a number of human-caused activities that are killing whales in 2023, all of which could easily be prevented or at least ameliorated. In addition to the effects of climate change, whales worldwide have had to deal with commercial whaling, vessel strikes, entanglement, marine debris, oil and chemical spills, plastic pollution, boat and shipping traffic, overfishing, and coastal development.

1. Commercial Whaling

Source: Newsweek/YouTube

In 2023, you might expect commercial whaling to be practically non-existent, but it’s actually still prevalent in a number of countries worldwide. The number one offender is Japan, which disassociated itself from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) — an organization that provides restrictions for commercial whale hunting — in 2018, at which point it announced plans to hunt Bryde, minke, and sei whales. Even though sei whales were added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) endangered list in 2018, Japan continues to commercially hunt these and other whale species. Also, Norway has been hunting far above its quota (provided by the IWC) since 1993, opting to not abide by the whale hunting agreement from 1986. Shockingly, in 2019 it was reported that Norway killed more whales than Japan did, and approximately 40 percent of female whales killed in Norway were pregnant. Iceland separated itself from the IWC in 1991, though they tried to rejoin in 2002, despite still occasionally the fin whale, which is endangered. The Faroe Islands, an independent territory of Denmark, had killed more than 100 whales by 2019. Although, those living in the region have typically utilized the meat only within their communities and not sold it elsewhere.

Thankfully, commercial whaling is nowhere near as prominent as it used to be; a whopping 3 million whales were killed during the 20th century. Unfortunately, this led to the near-extinction of various species, most notably the blue and right whales. It is estimated that, today, the blue whale population is only 10 percent of what it was before commercial whaling, which helped the United States to maintain its economic growth in its earlier days and to become an industrial superpower. Whale hunting peaked from the 17th through the 19th centuries and continued all through the 1980s in a number of countries. Fortunately, a global moratorium on [commercial] whale hunting was instituted in 1985, after being agreed upon in 1982. However, Iceland, Norway, and Japan have still killed approaching 40,000 large whales since then, as well as more than 100,000 dolphins, porpoises, and smaller whales. In the United States, non-commercial whaling does exist in Alaska, although this is heavily regulated and is used by the locals solely as a means of survival. In 2018, federal laws prevented people to kill gray whales, although some indigenous groups are still allowed to hunt other species.

So, why is whaling still prominent in the 21st century? People primarily use whale blubber, cartilage, and oil in health supplements and pharmaceutical products. You may occasionally find whale meat in certain pet foods, or possibly even served as “traditional dishes” to tourists in regions where commercial whaling is prevalent. The worst bloody whale hunts and slaughters occur in the Faroe Islands and in Taji, Japan, where younger whales may be taken from their families and forced into captivity. If you want to prevent this needless slaughter, you can Support organizations like Whale and Dolphin Conservation, which is aimed at exposing this brutal industry. Also, when traveling to places such as Japan and Norway, participate in more whale-friendly activities — like whale watching — and do not Support any businesses that sell whale meat.

2. Vessel Strikes

Source: Terra Mater/YouTube

Vessel strikes — also known as ship strikes — are fairly common, and occur when a boat (of any sort) collides with a marine animal, such as dolphins, fish, sea seals, sea lions, turtles, and, of course, whales. These kinds of collisions are most likely to happen in high-traffic areas, and this is often a result of the difficulty of noticing marine animals (including whales), due to the fact that they tend to spend the majority of their time underwater and may not even be visible when they come up for air. And then, the animals themselves may be unable to detect these vessels and, therefore, would have trouble navigating out of the way of the vehicle. It’s believed that whales don’t recognize the fact that vessels are dangerous, which is why they don’t go out of their way to avoid them, and perhaps the largest whales see themselves as the biggest things in the ocean, with no real danger around them. In addition, blue whales are particularly susceptible to vessel strikes at nighttime, which is when they spend up to 80 percent of their above-surface time. The risk for strikes also increases substantially when whales’ feeding areas intersect with shipping lanes. Also, the noise emanating from vessels can interfere with whales’ ability to vocalize and communicate with each other.

Of course, these strikes can seriously injure and even kill animals, in addition to potentially damaging small- and medium-sized vessels and causing injury to people aboard. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) educates those who operate vessels on how to be responsible boaters, which includes being aware of where whales and other animals are present in certain high-traffic areas. NOAA also works hard to study all vessel strikes and collect data from them to hopefully prevent similar events. Aerial surveying, acoustic monitoring, research activities, and tagging can all help us to better understand the distribution of various marine animals.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for bigger vessels to detect a strike from a large whale, as there may not be a noticeable change in speed or anything else that might indicate such a strike. Even when a whale, for instance, gets stuck in the bow of a large vessel, the operator of said vessel may still not be aware of the whale’s presence. In order to avoid striking whales, those operating vessels should ensure that they are always vigilant when out on the water, because you can never be too careful. One thing that can be of use is polarized sunglasses, which can help with the glare of the sun. Operators also must follow all speed zone signs, and slow down when in areas where they expect larger whales to be. Regardless, it’s important to be aware that the whales were in the oceans first, not human-created vessels, which is why we need to put the animals’ needs first.

3. Entanglement

Source: Nature on PBS/YouTube

It’s not uncommon for large whales to become entangled in fishing gear — which can be either derelict or active — as well as in other chains, lines, and ropes in the animals’ environment. Fortunately, some whales are able to untangle themselves on their own, while others can struggle to do so and may end up carrying this gear for weeks, months, and possibly years. Whales unable to untangle themselves can sustain injuries and infection, and if they’re dragging this gear, they will probably have difficulty searching for food, thereby resulting in starvation. They may also be incapable of resurfacing, which could lead to drowning. While it is possible for an entangled whale to survive for approximately five months under these conditions, others may live longer or, sadly, die almost immediately. A whale’s survivability will depend on a number of factors, such as how severe the entanglement is and where the entanglement occurred. So, what are the causes of entanglement? Unfortunately, little is known about each entanglement, aside from the fact that most of the gear could not be identified. Of course, any type of fishing gear and other items mentioned above can cause entanglement for whales.

Sadly, there have been an increasingly high number of large whale entanglement reports in recent years; there were 46 confirmed entanglements off the west coast in 2018, 31 in 2017, 48 in 2016, and 50 in 2016. Those were the highest-ever totals ever recorded since NOAA began keeping track in 1982. Before that time, the average number of confirmed entanglements was about 10 per year, and the reasons for the increase could include different species distribution and movements, bigger populations, fishing distribution changes, and increased awareness in the general public about entanglements and how to report them. Of course, the aforementioned reasons are indubitably linked to the environment and Climate change. The species most frequently seen entangled have been blue, fin, gray, humpback, killer, and sei whales, with humpback whales being the ones most frequently spotted in entanglements. Right whales may also feed in places along the East Coast where fishing is common, and two of the United States’ biggest fisheries intersect with these whales’ habitats. Whales may bump into the buoy lines used in these fishing traps and become easily started, which may cause them to roll into the connecting rope and eventually become entangled.

NOAA has put in place the West Coast Large Whale Entanglement Response Program (WCLWERP), which is aimed at reducing the number of entanglements of marine mammals, which should enable NOAA Fisheries to continue promoting the Conservation and recovery of healthy populations of whales on the West Coast. This particular program is in tandem with NOAA’s focus on following the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which manages and conserves the populations and habitats of marine mammals. The WCLWERP’s network consists of naturalists, the U.S. Coast Guard, veterinarians and vet techs, whale biologists and researchers, as well as state agencies. Due to the dangerous work involved in responding to entangled large whales, all individuals are extensively trained to ensure the best possible safety, both for themselves and the animals. The reduction of entanglements can alleviate the pain, stress, and suffering that whales can experience while entangled, and even if they are able to swim away from the gear, they may have lasting scars or infections. Stress can also make it more challenging for right whales, in particular, to reproduce.

4. Marine Debris

Source: Associated Press/YouTube

It’s not uncommon for larger whales to consume various types of marine debris, which can be fatal for these animals. Marine debris can include metal, glass, wood, and plastics, as well as lost or abandoned fishing gear. And, because a lot of this is synthetic, it could last for up to [an estimated] 600 years. The most commonly ingested item is plastic, and whales can ingest microplastics indirectly — if prey species such as krill ingest them first. Our oceans are, unfortunately, filled with lots of things that have no business being there, thereby making marine debris one of the most widespread, pressing problems facing the world’s oceans. Any object that is solid and human-made can become marine debris, once it is littered or lost and ends up in the ocean or another body of water. This type of debris can be found worldwide, from remote shorelines to the deepest parts of the ocean.

One recent case involved a 60-ton, 56-foot-long sperm whale, who was found washed up in Kaua’i, Hawaii. After looking for clues behind the whale’s death, researchers determined that the ingestion of marine debris was a contributing factor to the whale’s death. Of course, examining the whale in detail was difficult, at least initially, due to the mammal’s sheer size. Still, they found quite a few “manufactured items” in this whale’s stomach, such as fishing lines and nets, hagfish traps, and plastic bags; and, because only a section of the stomach was examined, there is believed to be much more debris than that. The researchers noted that the debris had likely caused blockage in the stomach, which lead to the whale’s inability to fully digest food.

Due to the fact that whales often travel great distances, it’s near impossible to determine the origin of any debris they ingested. This debris is free-flowing, with no respect for international borders, which is why countries all over the world need to work together to address this issue. In 2022, the IWC endorsed the Resolution on Marine Plastic Pollution, which is aimed at determining the areas of the ocean where whales are most likely to encounter marine debris. In addition, training workshops have been held, in hopes of improving our understanding of what types of debris are most dangerous to whales and other marine animals while searching for alternatives. Fortunately, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program is able to fund projects across the U.S. (and its territories) that get rid of marine debris along shorelines and research this issue to better understand it, in order to prevent the debris from getting into our oceans altogether.

5. Oil & Chemical Spills

Source: National Geographic/YouTube

Unfortunately, oil and chemical spills occur, and this can severely affect the health of whales who live in areas where the spills occur. Oil spills are, not surprisingly, toxic to whales, who may indirectly ingest the toxic chemicals and/or oil after eating prey that has been contaminated. The whales may also breathe in the fumes from the spill, or may swim through the oil and ingest it directly. Particularly high doses of oil can cause problems for their nervous systems. In addition, oil spills can kill whales’ typical prey — such as the shrimp-like krill — and, as a result, the whales could starve. These animals will probably not avoid any floating oil spills, sometimes swimming right into them. If this happens, the oil can go into their mouths and blowholes, causing them to inhale the toxic chemicals.

Due to the plethora of oil that is transported via oceans and other waterways — for example, 20 billion gallons of oil goes through the Puget Sound area — the oil spill risks are quite high. Oil is typically transported via petroleum and railroad pipelines, which means that spills can easily go into the surrounding water. The effects of these spills can be long-lasting and severely diminish certain whale populations. One such case involves two orca populations that still haven’t fully recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in 1989; the pod consisting of transient orcas lost 41 percent of its population, while the pod consisting of resident orcas lost 33 percent.

So, how do we protect whales from these spills? NOAA and other related organizations should be in contact with the owners of whale-watching ships, in hopes of getting the whales to avoid entering the areas where spills have occurred. To do this, vessel operators will be trained on how to respond to oil spills by surveilling local wildlife and deterring them from the area. These kinds of spills can also negatively affect the global food chain, as the concentration of these toxic chemicals is magnified — also known as biomagnification — the further it travels up through the food chain. This means that animals such as orcas could ingest the highest possible levels of contaminants, which they store long-term in their fat reserves. The most harmful chemicals that whales might ingest are lipophilic (aka “fat-loving”), which makes it difficult for the animals to get rid of them. This, in turn, increases the whales’ nutritional stress, leading to developmental problems, immune system depression, and reproductive impairment.

6. Plastic Pollution

Source: NowThis News/YouTube

As mentioned above, whales frequently ingest marine debris, much of which consists of plastic Pollution. It is estimated that whales can ingest millions of microplastic particles in one day. Blue whales, in particular, may ingest up to one billion particles throughout the course of a feeding season, with relatively unknown impacts on their health. If nothing is done to curb this increase in plastic Pollution — in areas where Pollution is the highest — whales could consume up to 150 million particles per day, according to researchers. While this research was conducted off the coast of California, researchers noted that other parts of the world are even more polluted. Dr. Shirel Kahane-Rapport of California State University, Fullerton, said that there’s heavy Pollution in places such as the Mediterranean, the North Sea, and waters in southeastern Asia. For this study, researchers estimated the microplastic consumption of various whale species (mainly blue, fin, and humpbacks). For these whales, the microplastics are typically ingested indirectly — through the prey they consume, and not through the water.

It’s no secret that large amounts of plastic waste end up being in the world’s oceans, and plastic Pollution is a worldwide problem. This waste may pollute everything from Mount Everest‘s summit to the ocean’s deepest depths. Reportedly, more than 1,500 wild species have, in some way, consumed plastic waste. Humans, too, may ingest microplastics through food and water, and also by breathing them in. Unfortunately, because the researchers were rather conservative with their estimates and observation, it’s likely that whales are ingesting many more particles of microplastic than we might have previously thought. And, baleen whales tend to feed at about 50-250 meters below surface level, which is where one would find the highest concentration of microplastics in the ocean. It’s remarkable and saddening to hear that the world’s biggest living organism — the blue whale — is the one likely to ingest the most plastic waste. Scientists are continuing to study whales’ ingestion of microplastics, in order to get a better understanding of how it affects their health, and how to prevent this from happening as often as it does.

So, how do we fix the ocean plastics problem? How do get stop the prevalence of plastic Pollution, which could end up outweighing all fish by 2050. We need to get to the root of the problem, and organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency should be regulating plastics and doing whatever they can to prevent plastic Pollution — by stopping it at the source, long before it gets to our oceans. Unfortunately, single-use packaging is in so many things that we buy, wear, and use, and will get shed and discarded. And, to make matters worse, the fossil fuel industry wants to increase the production of plastics. It’s not an easy problem to fix, but it is not too late to do so.

7. Climate change

Source: NowThis Earth/YouTube

Of course, whales are inevitably affected by climate change, which has led to ocean acidification, warmer oceans, and more and worse extreme weather events. Because of all of this, many marine animals have needed to relocate, and some species have difficulty adapting to their new environments and situations. Of course, Climate change has affected different whale species in different ways and to varying degrees. As they primarily live in arctic regions, beluga whales have had to deal with unpredictable ice coverage and patterns, which makes it difficult for them to migrate via their usual routes; this also increases the likelihood of them being trapped under the ice. As a result, they could be unable to surface to breathe, could starve from a lack of prey, and could be vulnerable to predators (such as orcas). Also, many belugas have had to change their foraging behavior, forcing them to dive deeper, more frequently, and for longer periods of time, which can harm their reproduction abilities.

Humpback whales, who had returned from near extinction, now find themselves in a difficult position due to Climate change. After dealing with and recovering from overhunting, warmer waters have forced humpbacks to move their typical breeding grounds to unfamiliar locations. While it’s unclear why they head to warmer climates to breed, it may be because they want to avoid predators (orcas). According to researchers, for a “middle-of-the-road” type of scenario, more than 70 percent of humpback whale breeding areas in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres would see ocean temperatures at or above 82 degrees (Fahrenheit) by century’s end.

NOAA is actively working to conserve species affected by Climate change; they have provided “climate-smart Conservation training” for staff, climate vulnerability assessments for marine animals, and scenario planning to “address uncertainties, predict impacts, and prioritize mitigation and recovery actions.” It’s important, too, to recognize how integral whales are to combatting Climate change, in terms of the role in which they play in the marine ecosystem. For one, they help to provide up to 50 percent of the world’s oxygen, as well as to sustain fish supplies. When whales dive, feed, migrate, and poop, they circulate “essential nutrients throughout the ocean.” This, then, keeps marine ecosystems healthy and supports the growth of phytoplankton — which is essential for locking in carbon. Sadly, the massive slaughter of whales in the 19th and 20th centuries may have exacerbated the effects of Climate change.

8. Boat/Shipping Traffic

Source: TRT World/YouTube

The recent increase in shipping traffic on waters worldwide has posed serious threats to whales (and dolphins), namely in the form of direct vessel strikes (as mentioned above). From 1992 to 2013, shipping increased by about 300 percent, and this continued to increase by about 2 to 3 percent per year. With ships getting bigger and faster, they are able to move upwards of 10 billion tons of materials annually worldwide. Unfortunately, many shipping companies probably feel pressured to deliver their products as cheaply and as quickly as possible, and they are most likely not prioritizing the well-being of the animals whose lives are under threat as a result of these changes. In addition, there has been a rise in travel via ship/boat, such as passenger ferries that travel through coastal waters populated by dolphins and whales. Certain shipping lanes may go directly through the feeding grounds and/or habitats of various whales, dolphins, etc. Also, this increase has at least doubled the amount of noise water Pollution, especially in Arctic regions, where it was increased at a rapid rate. Underwater noise can cause trouble for whales, as it leads to behavioral changes, hearing impairment, higher stress levels, and difficulty in finding prey.

One heartbreaking example is a blue whale who was killed after colliding with a container ship near Sri Lanka; the whale’s death was probably the result of a direct strike with the bow of a large commercial vessel, which created a sizable wound on the animal. So, what can we do? Aside from keeping ships away from whales in order to avoid strikes, we can enforce vessels to slow down in major shipping lanes (with a maximum speed of 10 knots) and try to make ships quieter so as to reduce noise pollution. Animals exposed to loud noises for extended periods of time may experience hearing loss, and in order to avoid this overwhelming noise, dolphins and whales may depart areas where they usually feed and/or where they feel safest; in turn, this can make it difficult for them to find food, nurse their young, and stay healthy.

9. Overfishing

Source: World Economic Forum/YouTube

Overfishing is yet another human-caused activity that has negatively affected whales worldwide. In the past half-century, the oceans have changed dramatically, as they have become more acidic, more polluted, and much more overfished. In fact, many scientists believe that overfishing is the biggest threat to marine ecosystems, as humans’ increasing appetite for seafood exceeds the ecological limits of the world’s oceans. The devastating impacts on the marine environment, some warn, could be irreversible. The IWC estimates that fishing leads to the death of 300,00 cetaceans — which includes whales — per year. These are animals who depend on fish for food. In these instances, larger, more commercial fish have typically been replaced with smaller fish that feed on plankton, and could even be replaced by jellyfish.

So, what exactly is overfishing? Well, it’s when we catch too many fish at once — primarily to be sold for food, as a whopping 3 billion people use seafood as a source of protein. This causes an immense depletion of the breeding population, thereby making it near impossible for them to recover. In addition to overfishing, there are certain ways in which commercial fishermen haul in much more fish and other animals than they end up keeping, leaving them discarded as if they are mere objects. This leads to the unnecessary loss of billions of fish, as well as thousands of cetaceans and sea turtles. Overfishing is evidently exacerbated by illegal catches and trade, which have caused some of the worst impacts on our oceans. According to experts, an estimated $35.4 billion per year goes to criminals who make money via illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing nets.

Apex predators are disappearing, bottom trawling is tearing the ocean apart, and fishing vessels wage war on the oceans.GMO fish are not the answer to overfishing. If we want to save marine wildlife, dietary choices will have the most impact.

According to Counting Animals, “An individual who chooses to take on a vegetarian diet can save over 225 fish and 151 shellfish a year. If just half of the U.S. population (about 150,000,000 individuals) eliminated seafood from their diets, that would mean about 33,750,000,000 fish would remain in the ocean every year.”

Everything nutritious that people believe they are getting from fish can get from other sources. Check out How to Ditch Fish Oil for Plant-Based Sources and Why Flaxseed Oil is Healthier than Fish Oil. Fish often have been exposed to many toxic chemicals like mercury which the consumer then eats when they eat the fish. Fish are also sentient creatures and can feel pain. There is no reason that we need to continue to eat these animals.

10. Coastal Development

Source: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park/YouTube

The final human-caused activity worth mentioning — although there are more than what are listed here — is coastal development. In January of this year, it was believed that offshore wind development was to blame for the recent whale deaths on the mid-Atlantic coast. Maryland Congressman Andy Harris, M.D. (R-1) called for a halt to this development, saying that there should be an “immediate moratorium on windmill construction and related underwater geotechnical testing until it is definitively proven that this construction and testing are not the cause of the repeated whale deaths.” Since December, two sperm whales and seven humpback whales were found at the same time that offshore wind development prepared for the future wind turbines that will be installed in the area.

Murdoch University in Australia is involved in a collaborative research project that measures the potential impacts of coastal developments, specifically on female humpback whales, as well as their calves, on the northwest coast of Western Australia. As this is an area where mothers and calves typically go to rest and nurse, researchers are trying to determine the impact of coastal development on ambient ocean noise and acoustic whale behavior. The goal is to minimize the development’s impact on these whales. Unfortunately, humpback whale resting areas are often in locations where development is expected to occur, namely in the form of oil and gas exploration and shipping, as well as port construction. NOAA is focused on minimizing the impact of offshore wind development on whales, although they do claim that there is currently “no evidence” supporting the “speculation that noise resulting from wind development-related site characterization surveys could” lead to whales’ deaths, as well as “no specific links” between ongoing surveys and recent large whale deaths. Even though there isn’t yet sufficient data, it’s important to be studying the effects of coastal/offshore development on whales.

Clearly, there are numerous human-caused activities that kill whales, all of which can be prevented or at least lessened. The ocean is their home, not ours, which is why we must do our best to limit our activity and protect whales and their habitats as much as we can. It’s important to Support whale-friendly organizations and to not engage in any activities — such as fishing in areas where whales live or pass through — that could harm these animals. Adopt more whale-friendly habits, such as limiting your seafood (or, better yet, eliminating it from your diet entirely).

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