Stories tagged whaling

Oct
13
2010

Happy as a whale in: ... in whatever.
Happy as a whale in: ... in whatever.Courtesy Ineuw
We love whale poop around here. Love it love it love it. Can’t get enough. It’s fortunate for us that whales poop so much—if you were to get the planet’s daily supply of whale poop in one place, and if you were also in that place, you would suffocate. It’d be awful.

The reason we love whale poop so much is because of its role in what Elton John and I like to call “the circle of life.”

We’ve already discussed how sperm whales have a net negative contribution to atmospheric CO2, because of all the iron in their poop. (The iron rich waste feeds tiny sea creatures, which, in turn, suck up CO2.)

It turns out that whales and their poop are also vital for the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for ocean life. While some parts of the ocean have too much nitrogen—extra nitrogen from fertilizers washes out through rivers, causing algae to grow out of control and create a dead zone—other areas contain a very small amount nitrogen, and local ecosystem productivity is limited by nitrogen availability.

So what brings more nitrogen to these nitrogen-poor areas? Microorganisms and fish bring it from other parts of the ocean, and release it by dying or going to the bathroom. But, also… whales bring it. Whales bring it by the crapload.

Whales, it turns out, probably play a very heavy role in the nitrogen cycle. And because the nitrogen feeds tiny ocean creatures, and those tiny ocean creatures feed larger ocean creatures, and on and on until we get to fish, more whales (and whale poop) means more fish. And we (humans) love fish.

Commercial whaling over the last several hundred years reduced global whale population to a small fraction of what it once was, but even at their current numbers whales contribute significantly to nitrogen levels in some areas. More whales, the authors of a recent whale poop study say, could help offset the damage humans have done to the oceans and ocean fisheries, while relaxing restrictions on whaling could have much further reaching ramifications than we might expect.

See? Whale poop is the best! (Whales too, I guess.)

May
12
2008

Mmmm...that's good eatin': It takes less energy to harvest seafood, including whale, than to raise animals on a farm.
Mmmm...that's good eatin': It takes less energy to harvest seafood, including whale, than to raise animals on a farm.Courtesy Sparky Leigh

The Norwegian whaling lobby has released a study, comparing how much energy is required to produce a pound of whale meat vs. a pound of beef, chicken, or other livestock. The results: one pound of chicken produces 2.4 times as much greenhouse gas as one pound of whale meat; pork produces 3.4 times as much; and beef 8.3 times as much.

Greenpeace quickly pointed out that this has nothing to do with whales themselves; all farm-raised meat requires a lot of energy. Catching fish and other seafood produce similar amounts of gas. Many whale species are threatened or endangered, and protected by international treaties. Nations that do a lot of whaling object to these restrictions.

Nov
20
2007

A humpback whale throws itself from the water: in its enthusiasm to give its life for science.
A humpback whale throws itself from the water: in its enthusiasm to give its life for science.Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
I mean, I think I’d have guessed that the best way to gather scientific data on whales would be to observe them, and maybe toss some electronic tracking tags on them. But then again, I’m no scientist, so I’ll leave cetacean biology up to folks like those on the Japanese “scientific research whaling” fleet, which disembarked on Sunday with the intention of catching 1100 whales to study the whales’ “population, age composition, sex ratio, and natural mortality rate.” Then, in accordance with the regulations of the International Whaling Commision, these 1100 research subjects will be butchered and sold as food.

It seems a little goofy, I know, killing all these whales in the name of science, but you know what they say: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few thousand whales.”

This hunt (we’ll call it a hunt, for simplicity’s sake) is just another episode in a decades long debate over whaling rights and practices. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on all whaling, in response to severely depleted whale populations. This cessation of whale hunting had just a couple exceptions: aboriginal subsistence whaling, which allows small scale whaling by aboriginal groups with a tradition of whaling, and the scientific research whaling, which says that whales can be taken for scientific purposes. The harvested whales can then be sold for consumption.

Japan has a cultural tradition of whaling, dating back a thousand years at least. Whaling became particularly important, however, after WWII, when whales became “a cheap source of protein in the Japanese post-war diet.” Whale consumption peaked in 1962, and has since declined in popularity, to the point where it is now a subsidized industry. The for-profit company behind the research expeditions sells about 60 million dollars worth of whale products each year.

The Japanese government maintains their country’s whaling is done for scientific purposes alone, although critics point out that the scientific whaling uses the exact same boats, crews, and equipment as was used for commercial whaling prior to the moratorium.

This year, the Japanese fleet plans on catching 1000 minke whales, a relatively plentiful species of small baleen whale, as well as 50 humpback whales and 50 fin whales, which are vulnerable and endangered species, respectively. Geenpeace plans on intercepting the fleet with their flagship Esperanza, and then, I don’t know, yelling a lot. It promises to be an exciting expedition, especially for the whales.

Sep
11
2007

Count me, too: According to new research, the Pacific gray whale population hasn't rebounded nearly as strong as orginally thought, with global warming and other environmental changes being factors in limiting their comeback.
Count me, too: According to new research, the Pacific gray whale population hasn't rebounded nearly as strong as orginally thought, with global warming and other environmental changes being factors in limiting their comeback.
It was thought to be one of the big success stories of the eco-generation – Pacific gray whale numbers rebounding levels thought to be their population level before wide-scale commercial hunting efforts started decades ago.

But under closer scrutiny, new studies show that the gray whale populations aren’t as large as first thought. Original estimates through a genome study conducted by Stanford and Washington universities had pegged the gray whale population at 96,000. But new data now has scaled back those numbers to around 22,000, which is about one quarter the number of Pacific gray whales that were in the Pacific before whaling efforts began.

Researchers are pointing to a couple of factors for scaling back their estimates: global warming and changes in the Pacific Ocean’s ecosystem.

Global warming is decreasing the amount of food animals the gray whales are able to find in their northern home around the Bering Sea. Researchers have found increasing numbers of thin and starving gray whales in that region.

The grays’ near extinction may have also caused other changes in the ocean’s balance of nature that may limit to stunt their ability to recover to their pre-whaling ban levels. That’s kind of a complex situation.

When gray whales feed, they go deep to the ocean bottom and “plow-up” sediment to shake loose little ocean critters. Their lack of doing that over decades of over whaling may have tipped the scales of nature’s balance in providing less habitat for those types of little sea creatures. And gray whales aren’t the only ones to be impacted by that.

Sea birds also depend the grays’ sea bottom churning action as well and less churning means less food for the birds to feed on.

Fin whale: Courtesy Lori Mazzuca, NOAA
Fin whale: Courtesy Lori Mazzuca, NOAA

In a continuing world trend toward renewed whaling of endangered species Iceland whalers have killed a Fin whale. Fin whales are listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union.