WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
PHOTOGRAPH BY CRISTINA MITTERMEIER
A new study on whales shows us there’s still so much to learn about the ocean. The Frontline explores how whales are a critical carbon sink that deserves more attention at COP26.
The ocean makes up more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface, yet we still don’t know a whole lot about it. We do know, however, that it’s in real trouble. The ocean absorbs heat and carbon dioxide, whose high levels are now harming marine ecosystems. Before the climate crisis unraveled, industrialization took its toll on the ocean.
That’s because of a key resource: oil. But this oil didn’t come from fossil fuels—it came from whales. From the 18th century until the mid-20th century, Europeans and Americans hunted whales for their oil, which they used to lubricate factory machines and illuminate people’s homes. Global whaling efforts nearly drove the majestic underwater creature to extinction. We’re only now starting to understand the scale of the impact that has been left on our marine ecosystems—and the people who depend on them.
Welcome to The Frontline, where climate solutions must involve the ocean. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. A new study published last week offers a new understanding on whales and their influence on marine food webs. It should force the world to reckon with the extractive way people hunted these creatures—and the significance of helping their populations bounce back. As climate negotiations carry on in Glasgow, Scotland, leaders at COP26 need to also recognize the power of the ocean—and the urgent need to protect it.
Every living thing stores carbon in its body. That’s true for you and me—as well as for the giant forests across the globe. This is also true for the world’s largest animal (indeed, the largest animal to have ever lived): the whale. We often look back at dinosaurs and marvel at their size, forgetting that the blue whale is larger than any dinosaur ever was. Its immense body—which can weigh up to 200 tons—can store, on average, 33 tons of carbon dioxide. These gentle giants live for decades, sometimes even centuries, taking that carbon down into the ocean floor when they finally die.
The world nearly lost all its whales in the last few centuries due to the commercial whaling by Western civilization, which killed the animals for profit. These whalers, sailors, and the industries that employed them were driven by the same greedy colonialist mindset that nearly exterminated the world’s First Peoples, who had been sustainably hunting the whales for subsistence long before colonizers arrived. Now, a group of researchers are suggesting that we can—and should—help global whale populations return to what they once were. In fact, the severity of the world’s various ecological crises (from global heating to mass extinction) demands it.
In a new study published in Nature last week, a team found that baleen whales—which include the humpback, blue, and gray whales—eat at least three times more than scientists previously estimated. This may not immediately sound like a big deal, but whales are ecosystem engineers. All the food they eat has to eventually make its way out, and whale feces is highly productive for the ocean ecosystem. It’s full of iron and other nutrients that phytoplankton rely on to bloom. This iron, in turn, allows krill (the tiny, shrimp-like food of choice for baleen whales) to flourish, too. These nutrients can be pretty rare out in the Antarctic Ocean, for instance, but whales help keep the ecosystem thriving. That’s why we need more of them, especially these days as the ocean suffers due to rising temperatures and acidity levels.
“We need to realize that we are part of nature, and to protect nature is to protect ourselves.”
“Our results point to whales as being a kind of natural climate solution in that their recovery would definitely play a large role in improving the health of the world’s oceans,” said Nick Pyenson, a coauthor of the study and fossil marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
The authors assessed the feeding patterns of hundreds of whale individuals across seven species of baleen whales. They also looked at acoustic data of whales’ prey to map out how much food was available, as well as drone data to determine the size of whales and their mouths. These three data points helped the scientists estimate how much food whales can eat a day. Then, using that information, the researchers were also able to go back in time and paint a picture of what the ocean looked like when it was full of millions of whales.
“The numbers are spectacular,” Pyenson said. “The estimates we have are mind blowing. It’s an order of magnitude greater, and it’s equivalent to the entire global fisheries catch twice over. That’s how much food the world’s whales needed before we started hunting them.”
So, what does this all mean? The ocean has even more capacity than we thought. It’s capable of supporting food webs and processes much more productive and robust than what they are today. The ocean may have even more potential to sequester carbon not only in the deep sea but also in the tissue of marine mammals like whales. It’s also worth mentioning that the study is likely an underestimate of the creature’s eating patterns due to the limited number of species examined.
“We’ve lost a cultural memory for what the world was like when there were a lot more living animals,” Pyenson said. “And big things matter in ecosystems. Big things are not just charismatic or ornamental. They actually have a role to play.”
However, the ocean needs more whales whose poop keeps those cycles strong. Modern whale numbers, estimated to be around 1.3 million, are only a slice of their historic 4 to 5 million. If you look at blue whales, their population size is only 3% of what it used to be. Humans remain the greatest threat to whales—through entangling them in our fishing gear and contaminating their waters with toxins.
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Unfortunately, saving whales won’t stop climate change on its own, said Matthew Savoca, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. Replenishing whale populations can, however, help revitalize the health of the ocean, which remains an “untapped resource for humanity in our fight against climate change,” Savoca said.
“A lot of people only think about natural climate solutions as soil and trees and farmlands and peat bogs,” Savoca said, “but a lot less about blue carbon… The ocean plays an enormous role in nutrient cycles, including carbon cycles, so it would be foolish to not think about how we can best use these systems to our advantage.”
At COP26, where world leaders are debating what climate policy solutions to push forward, the ocean hasn’t been the main event, but some countries are paying it closer attention. Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador announced on Tuesday the launch of a new marine protected area called the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, which should help humpback whales that swim through the region. Meanwhile, more than a dozen countries pledged on Wednesday to do more to protect the ocean by investing in marine renewables and research, but some advocates argue the pledge is “weak,” reported Reuters. Leaders aren’t focusing enough on the ocean’s potential, said Asha de Vos, founder and executive director of Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation organization.
“For a long time, we looked outside nature to help us accelerate to net-zero,” she wrote in an email. “It is only in very recent times that we have begun considering natural climate solutions in our fight against climate change. However, in a world that is rapidly developing, our natural ecosystems are always the first to be destroyed. We need to realize that we are part of nature, and to protect nature is to protect ourselves.”
Hers is a sentiment that resonates across the marine conservation community. While leaders are starting to wake up to the value of marine habitats, they’re not doing enough to work them into their climate policies to ensure they can be protected and restored, said Ed Goodall, a project manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a wildlife charity dedicated to whales.
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“COP is about global action to save the world from catastrophic climate breakdown,” he wrote in an email. “If we restore our oceans, returning populations of not just whales and dolphins, but also fish and the extent of habitats, such as mangroves and saltmarsh, to their natural levels then the ocean will give us even more gifts than it does now. It will sequester more carbon for free. It will protect us from coastal flooding for free. It will continue to provide medicinal products for free and so much more.”
You might be wondering what all this has to do with people or equity. Well, conservation is some serious work. Policy alone won’t ensure the survival of whales or ecosystems. People and infrastructure do. Goodall notes the importance of investing in local communities across the world so that they, too, can reap the benefits. Combatting the climate crisis through ocean protection also creates opportunities for eco-tourism.
“Whales are all over the world and migrate incredible distances,” Goodall wrote. “Conservation and long-term sustainable management needs to be embedded in local communities as they are the genuine guardians of their environment… We have seen nations with a dark history of whaling generate huge new revenue sources from whale watching tourism, proving to communities that whales are worth much more alive than they are dead.”
This latest study reminds us how interconnected we are to nature. It’s a sobering reminder that people are why so much of our planet is suffering—but we can also drive the solutions to make it whole again. It’s on world leaders to listen to the science and finally give the ocean the attention it deserves. Haven’t their ancestors taken enough from it? Now, it’s time to give back.