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Conservation Opinion

Whales Are Vital in Climate Change Fight

The warm protected waters of Hawaii provide mother humpback whales a safe haven to nurture newborn calves. Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

By Jean-Michel Cousteau and Holly Lohuis

Twenty years ago my team and I had the vision of creating a marine conservation organization, Ocean Futures Society, with the mission to explore our global ocean, inspiring and educating people throughout the world to act responsibly for its protection. Since 1999 we have been very successful in accomplishing many of our ambitious goals but as a community of divers and ocean advocates, we have much more work to do to ensure our favourite dive spots continue to be the beautiful destinations we seek to enjoy on our underwater adventures. As I look back on these past 20 years, they have been full of exciting adventures and hard-fought environmental campaigns to protect coral reefs, sharks, whales, the Amazon, and our global fisheries. We have worked hard in advocating for more marine protected areas, supporting the development of ecotourism, and, most recently, raising the awareness of the urgent issue of a warming climate and the impacts it will have on humanity and our changing seas. 

The ocean is the defining feature of our planet. It feeds us. It sustains us. It inspires us. The ocean produces more than half of the world’s oxygen (the result of phytoplankton photosynthesizing). It acts as an important carbon sink, storing 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere, helping mitigate the impacts of climate change. Ocean currents circulate cold water from the poles and warm water from the equator, regulating our climate and weather patterns. We rely on healthy oceans for food, medicine, and economic benefits. Yet today, we face problems that undermine all of these critical gifts.


The sad truth is in these last twenty years we have been witnessing a mass extinction of ocean life on a grand scale. Actually, we are not only witnessing this tremendous loss, we bear primary responsible for this incredible decline of biodiversity. The accelerating rate of extinction is eroding the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. 

But it is not all gloom and doom when it comes to ocean life. In the same period of the past 20 years, we have been successful in bringing back from the brink of extinction many of the great whale species found around the world. For centuries we have hunted whales for a variety of resources: food, oil, cosmetics, pet food, among other uses. In fact, in the 1900s alone we managed to harvest/kill over three million whales. The twentieth century is referred to as ‘the largest hunt in human history’ when it comes to whaling. In 1986 the International Whaling Commission passed an international moratorium to stop international whaling. Fortunately today, we have come to recognize whales as some of the most iconic animals on our planet and we seek opportunities to enjoy watching them in the wild through many eco-friendly whale-watching excursions found in many parts of the world. 


As we appreciate our interdependence on intact ocean ecosystems, we are starting to put an economic value on the services of nature. Just recently I was intrigued when I recently read this headline news story from the Washington Post, “Living whales are worth an enormous amount of money.” It said, “The world’s population of whales is worth more than $1 trillion, the researchers concluded in a recent report, because of whale tourism, the nutrients whales disperse and the carbon captured by their massive bodies.” Reading this gives me a sense of hope because even in my backyard of the Santa Barbara Channel, we are seeing more whales today than we did back in the 1990s. The eastern population of Pacific gray whales is back up to pre-hunting numbers and the acrobatic humpback whales are increasing on average 5% per year, depending on the individual population. And today, the global population of humpbacks number over 100,000. Some of the great (baleen whales and sperm whale) whales are still listed as endangered but with international protection and reports like this one, we can finally realize their value in helping to maintain healthy oceans.  

In fact, this research reports that an individual large whale can store over nine tons of carbon in their body. Because many whales migrate great distances annually from high latitude feeding grounds to warm lower latitudes to breed and give birth, these whales help transport significant amount of nutrients through their excrement. And when they die and sink to deep depths, their carbon laden bodies help provide critical nutrients for the deep sea. Protecting whales could add significantly to carbon capture because the current populations of the largest great whales are only a small fraction of what they once were 100 years ago. 

As many whale populations continue to increase around the world, some of the threats that impact these animals today are vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and land based chemical pollution ending up in the ocean. The authors of this recent study knew that by putting a value of dollars and cents on ‘living’ whales, we would hopefully expand our appreciation of the ecological role these great marine mammals play in maintaining a natural balance and increase international protection of individual whale species and their critical habitat that sustains their population. Thus, the benefits from the continued protection of whales, now that we have a better understanding of their ecosystem services to us, we can appreciate every opportunity to see these charismatic animals swimming in the wild. 


We are at a critical turning point though; a turning point where we can use science, communication, and education to help more people create a hopeful vision for the future. I think we are living at a very exciting time in history, where we can take the hard-learned lessons from the past of overexploitation of the great whales and continue to value and dignify them and their ocean environment.

As we reflect on the past, we cannot forget that the sea unites us all. We must consider what environmental legacy we are leaving for future generations. As caretakers of our planet, we have the responsibility to utilize the immense body of knowledge we have today and strive to do all that we can to protect the aquatic world of the whales, knowing that their population’s health means we too can continue to strive for sustainability. 

For more, visit Oceans Futures Society.

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