‘Whales and dolphins are threatened on all sides and in every way imaginable… from the seas they swim in, to the food they eat and the food they can be, to the money that can come from killing and caging them, and even from the enthusiasm of those who “love” them’…. so warns the OrcaLab website.(https://orcalab.org/whales-in-danger/)
There are a number of deadly and changing threats posed to whales – and they can all be traced to humans.
Commercial whaling – the biggest threat
The main threat to whales is from commercial whaling. Whales have been hunted since prehistoric times, but for many centuries, the methods used were very primitive and usually involved trying to force a whale into shallow water so that it could be caught. In reality, the number of whales that were successfully caught and slaughtered was relatively low.
During the 17th century, whaling became very profitable and increasingly commercial. Whale meat and blubber had always been useful, but suddenly many new uses had been found for whale oil. The oil was used to fill lamps, make candles and soap and was also used for cooking. The Industrial Revolution had begun and whale oil was being used in locomotives. Whale bones were also found to be ideal for making ladies’ under garments and umbrellas – the whale was suddenly a much sought after commodity. As demand grew, so did the competition between countries and whaling companies. Commercial whaling became much more sophisticated with organised fleets of boats, with the result that an ever-increasing number of whales were being killed.
Even today, although conservation measures are now in place, commercial whaling remains the primary threat to whales. In the southern oceans, they are still hunted – even though it is illegal more than 1,000 whales are killed each year.
In 1931 the first International agreement to regulate commercial whaling was drawn up and in 1946 the International Convention for the Regulation of Whales was signed by many countries. Shortly afterwards, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established and in 1982 the IWC established a moratorium which prohibits the commercial killing of whales and regional bans were placed on commercial whalers.
Sadly, in some countries, whale meat is still eaten and still fetches a good price on the market. Amongst the countries not abiding by the moratorium on commercial whaling are Iceland, Japan and Norway. Japan has taken the additional step of only whaling in its territorial waters to avoid any international legislation. There is an increasing amount of negative press worldwide these days about commercial whaling and this is having a very positive effect on deterring countries from supporting any form of whaling.
The dangers posed by shipping.
A second major danger for whales is commercial shipping. The whales are often migrating through busy shipping channels and the impact from a cargo ship, tanker or even a cruise ship results in the death of the whale. Speed restrictions for shipping has now been established in a number of the busiest shipping areas in the hope that much fewer ships will hit whales.
Fishing kit – another hazard.
Getting caught in strong commercial fishing gear can cause injury and even death to whales. Getting themselves entwined in lines and their battle to try and free themselves can weaken the whale and slow down its progress. Sometimes the whale is unable to feed properly and this can lead to starvation and the whale’s eventual death.
Challenges posed by climate change….
Scientists have been recording many ways in which the earth’s oceans are changing as a result of climate change and all of these changes are having a negative impact on the whale population and other marine mammals. The rising temperatures of the ocean are affecting the currents and this in turn is changing the whales’ migration routes. The rising water temperatures and the dilution of the oceans by the melting ice caps are also having an effect on the stocks of krill and small marine plants. The spawning areas for both are changing and this in turn is moving the location of the traditional feeding grounds of the whales. Scientists have also established that the change in feeding grounds is also affecting the reproduction of several species of whales.
Whales play an important role in the health of the marine environment as they absorb a considerable amount of CO² which is being produced by climate change.
And ocean pollution.
Hand in hand with climate change is the negative impact of the high level of water pollution – especially plastic – in the oceans. Pollution also occurs from fuel and other chemical spillages from cargo vessels. The number of pleasure boats and sports boats is increasing dramatically and this too, is affecting whale populations.
Another real threat to these beautiful mammals is noise pollution. The whale is very sensitive acoustically and whales communicate by sound. A number of countries with military power are currently developing technology using really strong LFAS sound waves to help detect enemy submarines and this is causing whales in the vicinity great distress and leaving them disorientated.
And maybe worse to come…
The sad fact is that over the past 200 years, many species of whales have been hunted to the brink of extinction – including the largest of them all, the magnificent Blue Whale. Currently, 7 of the 13 species of whales are described as endangered and these include the Beluga and Narwhal. Thankfully, several species are now slowly recovering, but others like the Atlantic Right White has shown no signs of recovery in the last 15 years. For numbers to increase significantly, will take a number of years.
The greatest threat is possible wavering of the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium to enable whaling nations to restart their commercial whaling operations. The moratorium was established in 1982 for an indefinite period, but the IWC is coming under increasing pressure to renounce its decision. If this does happen, whales will once again face extinction…. https://iwc.int/status