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Four hundred and eighty-one. That’s how many minke whales Norway has killed so far this year, according to new data released by the country’s Fishermen’s Sales Organization, or Råfisklaget. That’s 52 more than all of last year, and 76 more than the two years before that. What’s more, this year’s whaling season in Norway has yet to end, so additional whales may still be slaughtered. Overall, this whaling season is the “deadliest in years,” according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), a Washington, D.C.-based NGO.

“The current increase in numbers shows how desperately Norway is clinging to its whaling activities,” Fabienne McLellan, co-director of international relations at Swiss NGO OceanCare, told Mongabay in an email. “It’s just cynical to classify the whaling industry, which is artificially kept alive through subsidies, to be of systemic importance during the COVID-19 crisis.”

In 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a global moratorium on commercial whaling activities, but Norway formally objected to this ruling. Eleven years later, the Nordic country resumed commercial whaling, and since 1993 has hunted more than 14,000 minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).

During their migration in the North Atlantic Ocean, male and female minke whales tend to segregate, with females traveling further north along the Norwegian coast. As a result, about 70% of whales killed in the Norwegian hunts are females, and pregnant ones at that, McLellan says.

“Pregnant females are slower and accordingly also easier to kill,” she said. “Standing on a whaling vessel that is constantly moving, it is difficult to distinguish whether the whale is pregnant or not.

“Also it is to be assumed that the females swim closer to the coast for energy and security reasons and are therefore caught more easily,” she added.

Targeting pregnant females could impact genetic diversity and population growth, says Kate O’Connell, marine animal consultant at AWI. “[T]he cumulative effects of this over the years is of concern,” she told Mongabay.

Animal welfare advocates also say that whaling is cruel. The whalers will strike a moving whale with a harpoon, which is meant to instantly kill them. But in many instances, it takes a long time for the whales to die, according to a report.

This year, Norway also loosened its constraints on whaling operations, which exacerbates animal welfare concerns, O’Connell said.

“[T]he government opted to weaken whaling regulations yet again, by requiring that only one person on board a whaling vessel would need to have whaling experience, and even then, only have participated in a whale hunt once in the last six years,” she said. “This poses a significant problem for the welfare of the whales targeted, as less experienced harpooners have been shown to have higher time to death rates.”

This year’s higher kill rate may be due, in part, to favorable weather during the whaling season, as well as the two extra boats used in this year’s hunts, according to O’Connell.

“Only ten vessels hunted last year, and the 2019 kill total of 429 was one of the lowest in a decade,” she said. “Given that twelve boats have hunted this year and the kill rate is higher appears to indicate that the industry is not yet in its death throes.”

It might also have to do with demand. Representatives from the whaling industry say that sales are up this year, possibly due to Norwegians wanting to buy local foods during the COVID-19 pandemic, and choosing to travel within Norway instead of going abroad. Øyvind Andre Haram of Norsk Hval, an organization that promotes the Norwegian whaling industry, likens current whale meat consumption in Norway to the “old days.”

“This year we see for the first time that the arrows point in the right direction, and it is very gratifying,” Haram told national media company NRK in Norwegian.

“I have worked with this for a six-year period, and have never experienced as much interest as this year,” he added. “The producers have … not been able to get enough meat into the shops.”

Per Rolandsen, a sales consultant at Norges Råfisklag, a Norwegian fishing association, told NRK that the whaling industry hopes to kill more than 500 whales this year.

While the pandemic may be driving up local whale meat sales, a 2019 survey, commissioned by Oceancare, AWI and other NGOs, suggests that whale meat is falling out of favor with Norwegians. It found that only 4% of polled Norwegians admitted to frequently consuming whale, while two-thirds of the participants said they consumed whale a “long time ago” or had never eaten it at all.

“The Nordic country is financing a range of projects aimed at boosting whale product sales in the domestic market,” McLellan said. “For example, the government supports the development of dietary supplements, alternative pharmaceuticals, and cosmetic products from whale oil.”

Whale meat is also being sold as “hipster food” at music festivals and trendy restaurants, served on cruise ships, and even being used as animal feed at fur farms, she added.

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Norway also exports whale meat and products to Japan, Iceland, and Denmark’s Faroe Islands, despite a CITES regulation that bans the commercial trade of whale products.

“One whale meat company, Myklebust Hvalprodukter, has been relatively successful in finding a market in Japan, going so far as to open a branch there,” O’Connell said. “Last year it shipped some 200 metric tons of whale products to Japan.”

Japan and the Faroe Islands have continued whaling, while Iceland’s industry appears to have ceased, at least for the moment.

McLellan says she believes that the IWC should formally address Norway’s commercial whaling activities, which it hasn’t done since 2001, and that member states of the European Union need to place pressure on Norway for commercially whaling in European waters. She also says that tourists can play a role by avoiding consuming whale meat when visiting whaling nations, and choosing to support whale-watching activities.

“While Iceland and Japan have been subject to diplomatic pressures in the past, Norway has so far been largely spared from criticism, despite being the whaling nation number one, carrying out whaling activities in European waters,” McLellan said.

“Norway should acknowledge that whaling is no longer a necessary industry and stop issuing quotas in defiance of the IWC’s moratorium,” she added.

Featured image by: Erik Christensen

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

According to new research published in the journal Scientific Reports, beluga whales have complex social networks, with close relationships outside of their immediate kin. The study changes scientists’ understanding of the whales’ social dynamics, which they believe are a result of the whales’ highly developed vocalisations. 

The study, conducted by the Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, brought new insights into the fundamental nature of beluga whale social structures which further challenged prevailing hypotheses about social organisation and kinship in cetaceans. 

The study used field observations, DNA profiling and multi- locus genotyping of beluga whales from 10 sites across the Arctic to address key features of beluga group structure, the pattern of kinship and behavior. 

Contrary to previous studies that postulated that belugas live in communities where social bonds focus on closely related individuals from the same maternal lineage, as seen in African elephants, the study revealed that both large and small social groups also frequently form bonds with whales of unrelated and distant lineages. The genetic analysis from the study revealed that Beluga whale groupings were not usually organised around close maternal relatives, instead involved more paternal relatives, indicating the male beluga whales’ high fidelity to a herd. 

The observed whales were often found in pods organised by age or sex rather than just family, meaning that beluga whales form relationships that go beyond those needed only for survival and “beluga communities have similarities to human societies where social networks, support structures, cooperation and cultures involve interactions between kin and non-kin,” the study authors write. Given the fact that they can live for up to 70 years and tend to remain within their natural community, these findings show that beluga whales may form long-term affiliations with unrelated as well as related individuals.

Further, certain behaviours were associated with group type, and group membership was found to be often dynamic. Greg O’Corry– Crowe, an ecologist at FAU and the lead author of the new study, says, “It may be that their highly developed vocal communication enables them to remain in regular acoustic contact with close relatives even when not associating together.” 

Additionally, the frequency with which adult female belugas associate with non-kin complicates the studies of menopause, indicating a need to expand the study outside of current evolutionary mechanisms. 

O’Corry says, “The findings improve our understanding of why some species are social, how individuals learn from group members and how animal cultures emerge. They also will hopefully promote new research on what constitutes species resilience and how species like the beluga whales can respond to the emerging threats including climate change.”

Featured image by: Tjflex2

As anyone who travels with kids knows, long journeys can lead to endless little songs, rhymes, riffs and gratingly repetitive singalongs. New research shows that whales are no different. To pass the time on their long migrations, humpback whales sing to each other as they travel – and learn new songs as different populations converge along well-travelled routes.

“Male humpback whales perform complex, culturally transmitted song displays,” explains Dr. Ellen Garland of the University of St Andrews in Scotland. “Our research has revealed the migration patterns of humpback whales appear to be written into their songs. We found similarities in songs from the Kermadec Islands and songs from multiple wintering locations.”

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According to the University, it was already known that whale songs are transmitted eastwards across the South Pacific Ocean, travelling across breeding populations from Australia to French Polynesia in a series of ‘revolutions’ passing in waves across the oceans. The new research, undertaken in collaboration with the University of Auckland, now reveals that migratory convergence appears to facilitate whale song learning as well as transmission of songs east, and potentially cultural convergence.

“While convergence and transmission have been shown within a whale population during migration and on their wintering grounds, song exchange and convergence on a shared migratory route remained elusive,” explains Dr. Garland.

Dr. Luke Rendell, also from the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews, added “Song themes from multiple wintering grounds matched songs recorded at the Kermadecs, including a hybrid of two songs, suggesting that multiple humpback whale populations from across the South Pacific are travelling past these islands and song learning may be occurring.”

Meanwhile, a survey conducted this year near the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) found that blue whale populations are steadily increasing, with the IUCN recording 3000 from as little as 1 000 in the 1960s. In addition to blue whales, the team recorded 790 humpback whales during the survey period, and estimated that there are now more than 20 000 of them feeding off the island seasonally.

This article was originally published on Parley, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

While commercial whaling is banned, it is estimated that at least 1 500 large whales are killed each year. While the problem of dwindling whale numbers is oft-discussed, what is less known about whales is the role they play in mitigating global warming. 

Whales are hunted for their blubber, meat and bones. The blubber is used in whale oil, which was widely used in cars as an automatic transmission fluid as well as a lubricant. However, whales are worth much more as a biofuel and they play a vital role in the global ecosystem to mitigate global warming.

 The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated the value of a single great whale at more than US$2 million, amounting to more than US$1 trillion for the current stock of great whales. This amount was determined based on each whale’s contribution to carbon capture, the fishing industry and the whale-watching sector. 

Whales and the Carbon Cycle

Whales are capable of capturing a significant amount of carbon from the atmosphere. A great whale’s diet consists largely of phytoplankton, a microscopic plant that converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and by extension, oxygen. A single whale can- over a lifespan of around 60 years-  accumulate around 33 tonnes of CO2 on average. By comparison, a tree can absorb up to 22kgs of CO2 a year. 

When whales defecate, the nutrients (iron and nitrogen) released from their fecal plumes stimulate phytoplankton growth which attracts fish and other organisms, a phenomenon known as ‘whale pump’. 

Phytoplankton contribute at least 50% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and capture an estimated 37 billion tonnes of all CO2 produced. This is equivalent to the amount of CO2 captured by 1.7 trillion trees, four times the number of trees in the Amazon Rainforest. The IMF study also stated that a 1% increase in phytoplankton productivity linked to whale activity could mean the capture of the equivalent of planting 2 billion mature trees. 

Even the (natural) death of a whale serves a crucial function. Whale carcasses sink to the seafloor, and the carbon stored in the carcasses is able to support deep-sea ecosystems and become marine sediments, with carbon being locked away for hundreds of years.

The carbon cycle of whale-phytoplankton positive feedback (Source: International Monetary Fund).

Whaling and the Environment

Whaling has been a tradition in many cultures since 3000 BC. Since industrialisation in the 1860s, the intensity of whaling reached its peak in the 1960s, with a maximum of more than 90 000 whales caught a year during this decade. Many species of whales became critically endangered during this time, such as the humpback and right whale.

Solutions to Whaling

In 1982, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and International Whaling Commission (IWC) passed a vote to ban commercial whaling. All commercial whaling activities are banned but member nations can issue ‘scientific permits’ for whaling. There is an ongoing issue of Japan abusing the system by using lethal methods to conduct what they call research on whales, whose meat is still widely available on the market in Japan. 

In 2018, IWC members discussed and rejected a proposal by Japan to renew commercial whaling. Through the Florianopolis Declaration, it was concluded that the purpose of the IWC is the conservation of whales and that they would safeguard the marine mammals in perpetuity to allow for the recovery of all whale populations to pre-industrial whaling levels. In response to this, Japan announced that it believed that the IWC had failed in its duty to promote sustainable hunting. It withdrew its membership from the IWC and resumed commercial hunting in its territorial waters in July 2019, but claimed that it would cease whaling activities in the Southern Hemisphere. 

The whaling industry in Japan has this year received a subsidy of US $47 million from the government to continue whaling. This controversial decision has been criticised by environmental and conservation NGOs such as the Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace and WWF. 

Besides whaling, other threats facing whale populations include overfishing, collisions with  ships and interference with their communication systems caused by noise from large ships.  

If whales were to return to their pre-whaling numbers of 4- to 5 million (up from 1.3 million today), researchers say they could capture 1.7 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. 

Meanwhile, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing rapidly. The levels of CO2 is currently at just over 411 parts per million

A recognition of the contribution that whales make in the fight against global warming and climate change could be a valuable alternative to high-tech solutions or expensive programmes. Humanity needs to change its attitudes to recognise that all organisms serve an important role in the global ecosystem.  

Featured image by: Dr Louis M. Herman

The latest campaign by WWF warns that man-made noise causes chaos in the Arctic marine ecosystem, where whales once thrived for thousands of years safely under the thick sea ice cover. Global warming cracked open the ice shields and let the men enter with their commercial ships, tourist cruises, and fuel exploration vessels.  Their unsettling noises damage whales’ hearing and impede their communication.

Earth’s northernmost waters are never quiet. Every day, the whistles of beluga whales and the grunts of humpbacks compose underwater symphonies in the Arctic Ocean. The natural orchestras that nurture the lives of Arctic whales are now disrupted by invasive and dangerous man-made noise.

Doom of the last acoustic refuge

Scientists once saw the Arctic Ocean as ‘the last acoustic refuge’ for marine mammals. But that was before the ice started melting exponentially.  An analysis of three decades of data by the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) reveals that the extent of Arctic sea ice loss in the last four years hit the highest rate ever.

The absence of thick ice prompted maritime traffic in the Arctic waters. In 2017, for the first time, a giant Russian commercial LNG tanker sailed across the northern route from Europe to Asia without the protection of an ice-breaker. The imminent doom of whales’ last natural sanctuary thus became obvious.

Currently, the four main trans-Arctic routes of commercial navigation see a steep increase in traffic year by year. In the northern route alone, the Russian government predicts, the cargo turnover would grow tenfold by 2020. WWF warns that Arctic sea traffic will quadruple by 2025.

There is an emerging trend of whale-watching tourism, cruise ships and boats carrying scores of travellers across the arctic waters- Skjálfandi Bay in the northern coast of Iceland draws more than 100 000 tourists every year. Whale-watching boats operate from 8 am to 11 pm all year round.

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The Arctic sea ice extent is declining at a rate of 12.8 percent per decade since 1979 (Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center)

The deadly noise

WWF explains that marine mammals heavily depend on acoustic information to survive the underwater environment where it’s always dark.

Research published in the scientific journal Biology Letters last year by oceanographer Ms. Kate Stafford and her team points out bowhead whales, an endangered Arctic whale species can sing up to 24 hours to attract mates during breeding season. Analysing five years of data Ms. Stafford, Associate Professor at the University of Washington, reveals that bowhead whales make new and diverse songs each year.  The round-foreheaded belugas—nicknamed as “the canaries of the sea”– are considered the most vocal among whale species. They use diverse clicks, whistles, and clangs to communicate, navigate and locate food. The humpback whales, on the other hand, compose new tunes each year to mate- like the behavioral pattern of the bowhead whales.

The man-made noise of ships overlaps the vocal frequency of whales and interrupts their communication. It hampers their navigation and cripples their ability to detect dangers. Sounds to them are like eyes to human. Man-made noises mask their senses.

Many whales stop singing when heavy ships pass by. Although some other species like the begulas try to overcome their challenge by changing their vocalisation level, the increasing number ships may soon exhaust them.

Industrial activities such as oil and gas exploration pose a great danger to them. Seismic air guns used for searching fuel deposits generate intense, acoustic impulse signals. The noise is louder than a jet’s take-off and can travel over 2,000 miles. Marine mammals experience temporary or permanent hearing loss when they get exposed these air gun blast—just like a human.

A 2017 study highlighted that air gun blasts can double the death rate of zooplankton, jellyfish, shrimps and sea snails.  The result is a disturbed oceanic food chain with the whale species, which feed on these small creatures, face starvation.


Humpbacks are known for ‘singing’ to attract mates. (Photo by Thomas Kelley/Unsplash)

Solution

In their campaign, WWF urges the eight Arctic States, including Canada, Norway, Russia, and the US, to take action to stop the noise pollution. Experts have suggested practical solutions to the problem. 

One simple step for mitigation is to slow down ships’ speed. Belén García Ovide, a Spanish marine biologist, who studied acoustic effects on whales for more than five years, says a boat’s speed is the biggest single factor of noise intensity in the ocean. Research published last year in Acoustic Society of America also sees the potentials in reducing acoustic masking by lowering cruise ships’ speed from 25 knots to 15 knots (equivalent to about 17 mph to 11.5 mph).

Quiet-ship technology is also an efficient way to deal with the noise. However, WWF points out existing technologies, which are designed to produce quiet military vessels, are either too expensive or unfit for the size of commercial ship engines.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), in charge of leading the implementation of ship-quieting technology, drafted a set of voluntary guidelines in 2014. The implementation of these guidelines might yield some positive results. WWF recommends regulations such as limiting vessels’ access to port facilities if they cannot meet noise level requirements.

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