Changing Planet

A New Approach to Saving the Whales

A blue whale flukes up in the shipping lane off of southern Sri Lanka. Shipping is the biggest threat to this population of northern Indian Ocean pygmy blue whales. (Photo by Asha de Vos)

There was a time when our oceans were teeming with whales; they were once the foundation of the oceans worldwide. In the 1600s there were enough right whales in Cape Cod Bay off the east coast of the U.S. that you could walk across their backs from one end of the bay to the next. Today there are only about 400 of these whales left, and they are endangered.

The Save the Whales movement of the ’70s was instrumental in halting commercial whaling. Environmental and animal rights organisations worked hard to expose the cruelty inflicted on whales and fought for the sake of biodiversity. Their success was reflected in the global moratorium on commercial whaling that was put in place in the early ’80s. Over the last two decades most whale populations around the world have struggled to recover their numbers. While some countries still indulge in whaling in violation of the moratorium or in the name of science, this is not the main reason population numbers are low.

While walking in my local downtown area of Santa Cruz, California, I am often accosted by young activists asking for money to “save the whales.” Given that my biggest mission in life is encompassed by that very phrase, I ask, “why?”

It turns out that the compelling story of whales being slaughtered for their meat still tugs at heartstrings and is a means by which these advocacy groups raise funds. It turns out many believe the whales should be saved because they are charismatic megafauna. Answers of this nature are a complete disservice to these magnificent ocean giants. The presence of whales in our oceans is actually critical for ocean resiliency because whales are not just pretty faces—they are ecosystem engineers. They maintain the health and stability of the oceans and provide services to human society.

The recent WWF Living Planet report tells us we have done the unthinkable by reducing population sizes of vertebrate species by half in less than two human generations. It makes one wonder, what can we do? I believe that we are selling charismatic megafauna short by not contextualizing our conservation messages. As conservationists, we should be creating awareness about the true ecosystem value of these species so people understand the importance of protecting these giants; because of their ecosystem functions rather than their acrobatics and grace. Saving whales should not be focused on whaling, because that is only part of the problem and there are more pressing modern problems faced by whale populations.

Since 90 percent of everything is shipped, we are all guilty of killing whales. The container ships that transport our food and clothes from one part of the globe to the other are inadvertently ploughing through and killing these very whales while they are in their feeding areas. Our fishing nets are drowning whales, our search for oil and gas is driving them out of areas that are most important to their survival. Using outdated campaigns does more damage than good because the true causes of death go unheard of and unnoticed. It enables people to point fingers at others rather than forcing them to take responsibility for their own part in the destruction. Let’s “save the whales” again by reviving and revising the old campaigns to make a real difference for the oceans.

This piece relates to the TED talk by Asha de Vos at TED Global in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on October 6, 2014.

Marine biologist. Educator. Fuelled by curiosity.
  • Okuneye Femi

    Shipping is part of world economic boosters…….. is there a way that all these heavy ships won’t affects our aquatic animals including whales

    • Asha de Vos

      As things stand, it is almost impossible for the ships not to affect marine megafauna in more ways than I mention in the article. Noise pollution is a really big problem for these animals that are particularly reliant on sound for communication. We just have to start thinking about our impacts on our surroundings and building in a manner that is less impactful. Great opportunities for scientists and innovators to come together!

  • Jennifer C

    I’ve recently ran across work from this young scientist and I have to say her work is amazing. I don’t know how to help or I would. Just wanted to express the need for more humans like her.

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