The Humpback’s population fell by an estimated 90% before a whaling moratorium was introduced in 1966. Creative Commons: Michael Dawes
Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.
At the dawn of the new millennium a series of emerging threats endanger the survival of the great whales according to a report released by WWF, the conservation organization.
The report, Wanted Alive! Whales in the Wild, says that seven of the thirteen great whale species remain endangered or vulnerable despite decades of protection. Alarm is now growing over other sometimes hidden hazards that could put more species of whales on the endangered list.
“Whales are falling prey to new and ever-increasing dangers,” said Elizabeth Kemf, WWF’s Species Conservation Information Manager and co-author of the report. “They are:
- killed or maimed during ship collisions
- menaced by toxic contamination
- entangled in fishing gear
- [threatened by] intensive oil and gas development in feeding grounds
- [vulnerable to] the effects of climate change and habitat degradation.
Evidence is growing that industrial chemicals and pesticide run-offs are potentially one of the gravest threats to the whales’ survival. According to the latest research, baleen whales are increasingly affected by chemicals accumulating in their blubber, which slowly release into their milk when they migrate to winter calving grounds.
These often invisible risks are becoming apparent at a time when whales are still struggling to recover from the years of overhunting that drove many species to the brink of extinction. The Atlantic population of gray whales actually became extinct, and the Eastern North Atlantic right whale population was so severely depleted that it is on the verge of disappearing from the planet. Scientists estimate the critically endangered Western North Pacific gray whale numbers at between 100 to 200 animals. Other cetaceans, including dolphins and porpoises, have also dropped to critically low levels.
Whale hunting is also still continuing, despite the declaration of a moratorium on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1985-86. “If whaling cannot be ended or brought under very tight international regulation, it remains a potentially serious danger for the remaining whales, together with all the other mounting threats,” said Cassandra Phillips, WWF’s Senior Policy Adviser on whales and Antarctica and co-author of the report. Each year over 1,000 whales are still being hunted for the commercial market, and since the moratorium came into effect, some 21,573 whales have been killed as of April this year.
Whale Watching: a solution?
WWF is encouraging carefully controlled whale watching as an economically beneficial alternative to hunting. In 2000 it attracted some nine million enthusiasts in 87 countries, and generated a record-breaking US$1billion in revenue. The income earned by the industry has doubled in only six years. In Iceland, whale-watching passenger numbers have grown from just 100 in 1991 to 44,000 in 2000. “Recent analysis suggests that the economic value to the Icelandic economy of whale watching may now exceed what would be gained if Iceland resumed commercial whaling,” added Mrs. Phillips.
A call to action
The WWF report also calls for a number of actions to be taken to protect whales. These measures should include:
- reducing marine pollution, establishing international control over the management of whaling
- ending the abuse of scientific whaling and whaling with factory ships on the high seas
- maintaining the ban on the international trade in whale meat
- and creating more whale sanctuaries and marine protected areas
Editor’s Note, January 2007:
Whale hunting is again making headlines around the world. A renewed threat from “scientific whaling” has received criticism in the recent media and some conservation organizations are making appeals to ban this type of exploitation of endangered and threatened species.
© 2001, American Institute of Biological Sciences. Educators have permission to reprint articles for classroom use; other users, please contact email@example.com for reprint permission. See reprint policy.