The tale of how a radical new view of the value of whales to planetary health was born aboard a boat.

Author: Charlotte Smith, writer on sustainability issues

The sun is just rising  on the Sea of Cortez in March 2018 as a whale research boat sets forth from Loreto, Mexico – a town situated on the east coast of the Baja peninsula. The small group of people on board are excited, hoping for sightings of the blue whale which is known to feed in these waters at this time of year, having migrated as far as 1500 nautical miles from their northern habitat. Among them are lifetime activist for whale conservation Michael Fischbach, and a man from the International Monetary Fund.

Ralph Chami is an Assistant Director at the IMF, an organization of 189 countries working to secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world. Mr. Chami has been at the forefront of this work in some of the world’s most fragile countries for 25 years. As a child growing up in Lebanon during the civil war, he did not plan on becoming a PhD economist. He would gaze across the sparkling Mediterranean from his strife torn country and dream of life as an oceanographer. Life sometimes has a strange way of returning a person to abandoned dreams from long ago.

Friends had invited him to join the whale trip with Michael, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the Blue Whale and many other great whale species. He was thrilled at the chance for a close encounter with one of the world’s great wonders, and to hear more about these species for whom he had a great passion. But he did not for a moment suspect that the voyage would end in what can only be described as an epiphany.

A conversation began as the boat made its way out to sea, about the impacts on the ocean on climate change, and about the ways in which the ocean, and the marine life it contains, are vital in helping to combat man-made global heating.

As the boat bobbed on the waves and the binoculars came out, Michael began to reel off staggering statistics on the estimated numbers of great whales still dying due to human activities in the ocean. Despite the international moratorium on commercial whaling introduced in the 1980s, populations of most of the great whales are still not recovering. The Blue Whale is estimated to have reduced in population by up to 99% since pre-whaling times, with right whales, humpbacks and sperm whales all suffering losses of between just under 70% and 99% in some ocean regions compared with pre-whaling estimates. The causes of death are many – entanglements, noise pollution, and plastics in the oceans. But strikes by giant cargo ships due to the explosion in container shipping in the past half century are now thought to be a major cause of whale mortality.

Then Ralph recalls Michael’s wife Heather asking him a simple but stark question. How much do you value your next breath? The explanation for this question was a revelation to the IMF economist.

As Michael explained, marine biologists have discovered that whales—especially the great whales—play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. When whales die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. In addition, scientists have established that whales have a “multiplier effect” of increasing phytoplankton production wherever they go. Marine biologists have learned that whales’ waste products contain exactly the minerals needed for the growth of phytoplankton. Whales bring minerals up to the ocean surface through their vertical movement, called the “whale pump,” and also through their migration across oceans, called the “whale conveyor belt.” Preliminary modeling and estimates indicate that this “fertilizing” activity of whales adds significantly to phytoplankton growth in the areas that whales frequent. Michael went on to explain that phytoplankton is responsible for approximately 50% of all oxygen produced—that is, every other breath we take. It is also responsible for the capture of about 40% of all CO2 produced.

Ralph Chami recalls that at that moment he knew what he had to do. Economists have for some time now been attempting to put a value on the functions of natural systems and the organisms within them, to encourage greater reflection of that value in economic modelling, particularly around the real ‘costs’ of action to mitigate climate change. It is known as valuing ecosystem services. No-one, so far, had attempted to do this for whales.

He assembled a team of academics and they set out to create a model for valuing biological functions that Michael had described. Working nights and weekends between their other jobs, his team began to realize, through their calculations and repeated consultations with top marine biologists, the enormous impact whales have on maintaining a balanced ecosystem. They found that an average whale captures 33 tons of carbon on its body; compared with a tree that absorbs up to 48 pounds of carbon per year. Their work reveals the enormous role phytoplankton has on carbon capture each year – the equivalent of 1.70 billion trees that is—4 Amazon forests’ worth—or 70 times the amount of CO2 absorbed by all the trees in the Redwood National and State Parks, per year. And whales contribute to the abundance of phytoplankton in the oceans.

Chami concluded that just as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (REDD) is designed to promote forest carbon storage in developing countries through financing mechanisms, a financial facility for protecting whales and other “blue carbon” natural assets could also be developed. The result was a groundbreaking paper, due for publication later this month, which for the first time puts a financial value on whales which incentivizes action to save them.

The paper posits that conservative estimates put the value of a single whale, based on its various contributions, at over 2 million US dollars, and easily over 1 trillion US dollars for the current stock of whales. Put simply, the cost of a variety of measures, adopted globally, to protect them from human impacts is vastly outweighed by the value they provide to making life on Earth stable for humanity.

What is needed, the paper argues, is a new mindset—an approach that recognizes and implements a holistic attitude towards humanity’s survival, living within the bounds of the natural world. While whales are not “our” solution, having inherent value of their own and the right to live, a new mindset recognizes and values their integral place in a sustainable ocean and planet. Healthy whale populations imply healthy marine life including fishes, seabirds, and an overall vibrant system that recycles nutrients between oceans and land, improving life in both places. The “earth-tech” strategy of enabling whales to return to their previous abundance in the oceans could lead to significant benefits not only to life in the oceans but also to life on land, including our own.

The fact that one of the IMF’s leading advisers has devoted himself and his team of experts to creating an economic framework to value the contribution of whales to maintaining the healthy functioning of Earth’s natural systems, on which all economies rely, is startling. It is an extraordinary sign of the acknowledgement of the perils to human security and stability posed by environmental degradation and climate change, and a siren call to all nations to recognize the vital imperative of protecting these giants of the ocean. The Save the Whale campaigns of the 1970s and ‘80s must be reactivated for our times; this time it is not just about the majestic whales, but the survival of humans too.

Join Michael and Ralph on their research boat talking about this project by watching “Whale Talk”, Episode 1.