GWC is excited to announce a new education/outreach effort to protect Great Whales based on the relationship between the Great Whales and the health of our oceans and our atmosphere!
The scientific community now understands whales are not simply a major consumer of krill and fish, but play a critical role in sustaining the very krill and fish populations upon which they feed. Blues, fins, and humpbacks must consume massive quantities of small fish and krill (an inch-long shrimp-like crustacean) to survive. Those fish and krill populations feed on millions of zooplankton (tiny, non-swimming animals.) The zooplankton feed on massive blooms of phytoplankton (tiny, non-swimming plants.) The phytoplankton require certain nutrients to be in the water, such as iron (Fe) and nitrogen (N,) to photosynthesize and make their own food. This chain of inter-relationships isn’t linear, it’s circular – much of the Fe and N the phytoplankton require is provided by, you guessed it, the Great Whales.
There are two mechanisms by which whales appear to play a fundamental role in this circle of life. First, as they return to the surface after diving their movements carry along nutrients such as Fe and N, as well as sinking phytoplankton, back into the photic zone. (The photic zone = upper ~20 meters of the ocean where there is sufficient light to allow for photosynthesis.) Second, whales urinate and defecate (pee and poop) most often at the surface, which also results in the release of significant amounts of Fe and N into the photic zone. The whales’ role in returning these essential nutrients to the surface is known as the “whale pump.”
Our understanding of the whale pump was stimulated in part by studying what is known as the “krill paradox.” When millions of whales were taken out of the ocean by the commercial whaling fleet, everyone expected a huge increase in the number of small fish and krill. After all, their largest predator was being removed from the ecosystem. But that’s not what happened. In fact, the volume of krill and small fish did not increase it declined – hence the term “krill paradox.” It is now believed that removal of the whales caused substantial reductions in the krill and small fish populations because the limiting factors in the ecosystem were the concentrations of Fe and N, and these nutrients disappeared from the photic zone when the whales were taken away.
Simply put: more whales more nutrients more phytoplankton more zooplankton more small fish and krill more whales.
What does this have to do with saving the oceans? The greatest remover of CO2 from the atmosphere and the oceans, as well as the producer of half of the world’s oxygen, are phytoplankton, those tiny, non-swimming plants floating on the surface of the sea. When they photosynthesize, they use energy from the sun to combine water and CO2 and make carbohydrates (complex sugars.) As a byproduct of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release the oxygen into the atmosphere we need to breathe. The amount of CO2 removed by the world’s phytoplankton surpasses the quantity removed annually by all the world’s forests.
So - if more whales results in the production of more phytoplankton, having more whales would lead to the removal of more CO2 from the atmosphere. No one knows exactly how much impact increasing whale populations would have on lowering levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, but any reduction would help slow the change in our climate, and decrease the advance of ocean acidification – and that would be a good thing. Saving whales might just help us save the oceans, and ourselves.
1. GWC is helping further the research on the whale pump phenomenon and its relationship to climate change. We are working with scientists at Harvard to learn more about whale poop, collecting samples to be evaluated for their potential to stimulate phytoplankton growth.
2. GWC is distributing information on this issue to the public and the press to help demonstrate the very real connections between all parts of the ocean ecosystem and land-based ecosystems as well, all of which depend on each other for survival.
3. GWC is working to create stronger relationships between ocean protectors and climate change advocates, who now share a common cause and a potential solution.
To learn more about the whale pump and the Great Whales’ role in fighting global warming, watch this excellent short video and stay tuned to the GWC website for updates on this important work. If you want more information right now, click here & here to read the recent scientific papers published on the whale pump concept. And of course, if you can help support our effort, please click here or contact us directly. Thanks!
The blue whale is the largest animal species ever to have inhabited Earth. The global population prior to human predation has been estimated at 350,000 individuals. Today there are around 10,000.
One of the world’s largest subpopulations of blue whales is the Northeast Pacific group, which transits the California Bight every summer south of Point Conception. This area is also one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes with over 6,000 ships transiting the Santa Barbara Channel to and from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach every year.
Blue whales are extremely vulnerable to strikes by cargo ships, cruise ships and other vessels while feeding on krill, transiting or resting. During the day krill descend hundreds of feet into the water column, but every evening the whale’s photosensitive prey re-concentrate near the surface. The whales follow the krill back to the dark surface waters and may not react quickly enough to avoid the large ships.
Collision with a ship usually results in injury or death for the whale. Records show that as many as five blue whales are killed by ships every year, and many more deaths likely go unrecorded because blue whales are negatively buoyant and sink when they die. The annual mortality could be as high as dozens of whales, which constitutes a significant threat to this subpopulation and possibly to the entire species.
Despite their size, California’s blue whales are for the most part unseen, which to a great degree is why they remain unprotected. It took decades to institute strong protections, including adjusted shipping lanes, ship speeds, and the establishment of protected areas for North Atlantic right whales, despite 60 years of “protected status” and the knowledge that one-third of the known mortalities every year resulted from ship strikes. The survival of the right whale still hangs by a thread as they number just 300 worldwide. We can’t afford to negotiate for decades on protecting blue whales in the Pacific!
GWC staff give educational presentations, develop public actions, and produce web-based videos to educate and inform the public about the dangers faced by the North Pacific group of blue whales. Focusing attention on State and federal regulatory agencies and on ship owners, they work to strengthen the rules and operational policies for vessels transiting critical blue whale habitat.
The corner on this issue will not be turned until the general public becomes aware of the problem and begins to “speak for the whales.” We must succeed, as it would truly be a tragedy to lose this magnificent species forever.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), a major energy utility in California and owner/operator of the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear power facilities (in Avila Beach and San Clemente respectively), is applying to relicense the two plants. Because both nuclear power plants were built adjacent to significant earthquake fault zones, the State of California has asked the company to do further analysis of the potential for a catastrophic accident should an earthquake occur nearby. Superficially, California’s request is prudent given the inherent danger. However, since the faults are clearly established in existing geological surveys, it is not clear how more information would improve the state’s potential response to a disaster that could rival or exceed the Fukushima debacle in Japan. Some would argue that the plants should simply not be relicensed.
Regardless, PG&E has applied for a permit to conduct seismic testing of the sea bottom just offshore of these facilities. Their proposal describes dragging an array of 20 air canons that would emit 250-decibel blasts every 20 seconds for 42 consecutive days. Although no one can predict with any certainty the damage that will be done, PG&E's proposal anticipates the likely deaths of hundreds of marine mammals, including many Great Whales. Blues, humpbacks, fin whales, and grey whales are all expected to be in the area, as well as numerous species of dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions. The violent concussions from the air canons will blow out the ear drums of any marine mammals close by, and the painful injuries and death that will follow will be horrific. There will also be significant impacts on fish stocks, and the local fishing fleet and tourism industries that depend on the presence of the fish and marine mammals are up in arms.
Since 1994 Michael Fishbach has been tracking, identifying, and observing blue, finback and humpback whales, primarily in the Sea of Cortez and the St. Lawrence River, sharing information from thousands of recorded sightings and hundreds of photo IDs with the scientific community. This information is invaluable for maintaining the northern hemisphere catalogues on these great whales.