Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Whale of a Week

Whales are spectacular gentle giants. They are at the top of the food chain and play a significant role in the functioning of marine ecology. They are intelligent creatures, capable of feeling joy and suffering pain. Like us, they live in complex social groups, pass on culture through generations, and even grieve. Their enormous size, strength, and speed have inspired numerous legends in cultures all over the world. Sadly, their size and mythological aura do not protect them; six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered, even after decades of protection, a fact stated by World Wildlife Fund.

Human Actions Are Driving Extinction
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered of all large whales, with a long history of human exploitation and no signs of recovery despite protection from whaling since the 1930s. They can now be found along the Atlantic coast of North America, where they are threatened by entanglement in fishing gear and ship collisions. Experts say that in the next 20 years if left unchecked, human activity killing the North Atlantic right whales could make them go extinct. This prediction comes after no new calves were spotted during this breeding season, with only five calves reportedly born in 2017. There are only around 430 North Atlantic right whales believed to be alive today, and only about 100 of them are breeding females. 2017 was a particularly bad year for this species, with 17 of them being killed by entanglement in fishing lines and collisions with vessels.

Thousands of innocent whales are caught in fishing nets as bycatch and are left to die. Smaller whales like the minke are unable to break free to breathe at the surface and are asphyxiated. Larger whales drag away gear and may endure painful deaths of six months or more, as wounds become infected and the struggle to swim wears them down and keeps them from food. Often, they starve to death.

Oil Extraction, Hunting, and Sonar
Shipping activity, ingestion of marine debris, and gas and oil extraction cause noise that can disrupt or even damage whales’ hearing. Such disturbance can keep whales from critical feeding and breeding grounds and disrupt their migration.

Despite a ban on commercial whaling and international trade of whale products, countries such as Iceland and Japan continue to hunt whales for their markets. Commercial whaling began in the 1800s and nearly drove many whale species to extinction. Over 1,000 whales are killed a year for such commercial purposes. Global warming and loss of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic have already started affecting whale habitats. Thanks to climate change, sea water temperatures, winds, and ocean currents are all in flux, meaning huge patches of flora and fauna that the whales feed on will change. These changes can mean whales such as humpbacks and blues may have to migrate much farther to reach feeding grounds, leaving them with less time to forage for food.

A 2012 scientific study suggested that noise created by ships could be hindering the ability of whales to communicate. Scientists measured a substantial amount of acoustic smog in a critical North Atlantic right whale feeding area. The results show that whales may be facing a lot of difficulty in hearing each other most of the time in that area. This can affect their ability to find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators, and take care of their young.

What Can You Do?
There are many ways you can raise awareness of both captive and wild whales’ plights. You can stay educated on the various issues involved, which already makes you a step closer to the change. You can also take action in your everyday life by making eco-friendly lifestyle choices like reducing your consumption of plastic and using environmentally-friendly cleaning products, as all drains lead to the ocean. Dietary choices can also have a major impact on the oceans and we can all help reduce the pollution and carbon intake of the marine environment by eating for the planet.

New research from scientists at the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute in Athens found that most of the endangered sperm whales found dead in the eastern Mediterranean since 2001 were killed by plastic waste. Postmortems on nine of 24 deceased sperm whales revealed that the animals’ stomachs were blocked by large amounts of ingested plastic which made the whales experience slow and painful deaths.

One young male sperm whale found near Mykonos had ingested more than a hundred plastic items, including supermarket bags, Alexandros Frantzis, head of the team of Greek marine biologists, told The Times. One of the bags found in the animal’s stomach came from a kebab shop in Thessaloniki, a city 500 miles to the north. “The young whale suffered an excruciating death,” Frantzis said. “We alone are accountable.”

Just last month, a whale washed up on the shores of Spain was found to have almost 64 pounds of plastic waste in their stomach. In 2014, an emaciated carcass found in the southern Peloponnese was discovered to have ingested two and a half meters of plastic netting. According to Frantzis, such incidents are alarming but not surprising. “The trend is bound to get worse because the amount of plastic waste in the Aegean Sea is growing,” he said.

It is not only sperm whales that are falling victim to our extreme overuse and reckless disposal of plastic. The plastic build-up in the oceans now threatens around 700 marine species with extinction. Since the beginning of the year, the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation has documented 18 deaths of rare loggerhead and green turtles in the southeast Aegean – but the real numbers are suspected to be much higher since most dead sea turtles are never recovered.

The Mediterranean is home to around 1,800 sperm whales, 200 of them are in the Aegean Sea. According to studies, plastic makes up more than 90 percent of the debris floating in the Mediterranean or lying on its seabed.

This year, Greece introduced a surcharge on plastic bags, but the country has yet to implement a nationwide ban that has already been adopted by several European Union member states.

This report illustrates the grave impact of our daily plastic usage. If we truly want to make a difference and end the destruction of our planet’s marine species, we all need to step up and start cutting plastics out of our lives now. To find out how you can join the efforts to stop the plastic pollution of the ocean by saying no to single-use plastics, check out One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic campaign!

AAA Gets a Triple F for Supporting the Imprisonment of Marine Mammals. Dozens of companies have cut ties with SeaWorld since the release of the documentary Blackfish. But despite knowing that the abusement park exploits orcas and other animals, AAA is still promoting it to its members.

In Defense of Animals
Iceland: Stop Your Senseless Murdering of Whales. Whales do not belong to anyone. They have the right to be alive, just as we do — the only difference is that their rights are not yet legally recognized. Unfortunately, one wealthy Icelandic man refuses to acknowledge this, and is currently attempting to kill as many as he can. We must stop him! TAKE ACTION

  • “North Atlantic right whales 'will be extinct in 25 years' – unless we act now to save them” (Washington Post)
  • “No Sign of Newborn North Atlantic Whales This Breeding Season” (The New York Times)
  • “Can anyone save the North Atlantic right whale?” (Boston Globe)
Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are in serious trouble. Federal officials are poised to grant a record number of offshore oil and gas drilling leases in the next year and could green-light seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean any day now. The Trump Administration’s actions could seal these whales’ fate once and for all. 
Their existence is hanging by a thread. No calves are known to have been born during this year’s calving season, and in the past year, 18 whales have been found dead – the most since scientists started reporting on mortality rates. Only about 100 breeding females remain alive.
Not being able to communicate, navigate or find prey could risk the very existence of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Ships tow dozens of airguns behind them, sending dynamite-like blasts of sound every 10 to 12 seconds, up to 24 hours a day for weeks to months at-a-time. Marine life dependent on sound to communicate and hunt for food, like right whales, are especially vulnerable to seismic airgun blasting. 

There is still time to prevent this tragedy, and we refuse to stand down. And right now, with a special matching gift active, you can have twice the impact in this fight. 

Oceana’s grassroots campaigners have already rallied the support of more than 1,700 bipartisan elected officials, tens of thousands of businesses, and hundreds of thousands of citizens who formally oppose seismic airgun blasting and new offshore drilling. We know that we can win this fight, but only with your support can we keep up the momentum needed.

We must act fast to ensure that the North Atlantic right whale is not further imperiledHelp out today.

For more ways you can help whales, check out these resources: