When a perished whale falls to the bottom of the ocean, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? We may never know the answer, but when a whale washes up on the beach, everyone takes notice. Recently, there's been a spike in whale deaths and strandings along both the eastern and western coasts of the U.S.
Researchers believe that vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing equipment and ropes may be to blame. Prey is also coming closer to shore, attracting whales and exposing them to vessels and fishing gear. Besides the hefty cleanup costs, what is the price of these unfortunate events? It turns out it's high since whales provide a behemoth of benefits.
Whales are good indicators of an ecosystem's health. As top predators, they eat fish, invertebrates, mammals and plankton, and they also serve as prey for other species like sharks or bears. When whales die, their giant carcasses typically sink to the seafloor and serve as food for deep-sea and marine communities. This process can last for decades, supporting hundreds of species.
On the human side of things, whale watching is a booming and rapidly growing industry, valued at nearly $2.9 billion globally. This activity makes substantial contributions to employment and the economy of coastal communities. Whale-watching tours also educate the public and serve as a means for researchers to gather data on whale populations.
Whales provide even more services through a process delicately named the whale pump. Whales feed at depths and then come to the surface to defecate. Their nutrient-rich waste helps support phytoplankton, or microscopic marine algae, on the ocean's surface. This plankton in turn serves as the base of marine food webs, supporting fish, birds and marine mammals.
It goes without saying that marine fisheries are a huge business, with an economic impact worth $325 billion annually. In 2020, they employed nearly 38 million people, the vast majority in Asia. Together, fisheries and aquaculture provide around 17 percent of the world's protein needs.
But that's just the start since whales' support of phytoplankton yields even more benefits. Around 50 percent of the world's oxygen comes from the ocean, and phytoplankton produces most of this. They also uptake lots of carbon dioxide. Oceans remove around 30 percent of human-emitted carbon dioxide every year, mostly due to phytoplankton.
Whales themselves also directly remove carbon from the atmosphere. Their giant bodies uptake and store carbon over their long lifespans, lasting 100 or even 200 years for some species. And when whales die, the carbon in their bodies falls to the sea floor, where it can remain for centuries. Extremely large whales, or great whales, sequester an estimated 33 tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes. Due to their numerous benefits, researchers have valued each great whale at $2 million, though other scientists argue we lack the necessary information to produce such accurate estimates.
Unfortunately, many whale species and their close relatives like dolphins and porpoises are under threat. Over a quarter of the 93 cetacean species found globally are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. While whaling once decimated whale populations worldwide, that practice is banned in many countries now. Some of the current threats to whales are encounters with vessels and fishing gear, as well as pollution, habitat loss and climate change.
Fortunately, companies can help whale populations in many ways. For instance, some shipping companies — including the giants Hapag-Lloyd and MSC — have voluntarily reduced their speed off the coast of California to help prevent whale strikes. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also offers a list of guidelines to reduce vessel strikes with whales and other marine animals.
In a similar vein, whale-watching tours should follow regulations and guidelines to avoid adverse effects on the whale populations they intend to celebrate.
While no carbon market yet exists for protecting whales, many are encouraging the idea to compensate those who incur costs for whale protection. Until then, supporting one of the many nonprofit organizations focused on protecting whales and other marine life is another great option.
Whales have shown remarkable resilience, with many species increasing after being decimated by whaling. It's not too late to help protect them and the multitude of benefits they provide.
Image credits: Venti Views and Dmitry Osipenko via Unsplash
Ruscena Wiederholt is a science writer based in South Florida with a background in biology and ecology. She regularly writes pieces on climate change, sustainability and the environment. When not glued to her laptop, she likes traveling, dancing and doing anything outdoors.