Delegates at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Slovenia have today voted in favour of Resolution 15 on Cetaceans and Ecosystem services, noting the increasing research that shows that whales positively enhance marine ecosystem productivity by recycling essential nutrients.
Whales feed at depth and then defecate nearer the water surface, providing nutrients to the plant plankton which grow in the sunlit upper waters. This process has been named the “whale pump” and delivers vital fertilizers in the form of iron and nitrogen. Whale migrations are also a key part of this process, seeing great whales move thousands of miles from nutrient-rich feeding waters to nutrient-poor birthing waters and delivering vital nutrients in the process.
Speaking from Slovenia, Mark Simmonds, Humane Society International’s senior marine scientist, said “The IWC’s recognition of whales’ ecological value exemplifies its remarkable positive evolution as a steward of their fate. After centuries of commercial whaling, it is only now that we are coming to understand the remarkable roles they play in helping to maintain and nurture marine ecosystems. Whales are the giant ecosystem engineers of the sea, moving nutrients around to help fertilise our oceans and help maintain healthy seas. Protecting these majestic creatures isn’t just the right thing to do ethically, but could also be the wise thing to do ecologically. This is a great day for the IWC as a leader in thought and action concerning whales.”
By passing the Resolution, the IWC has formally recognized the important role that these cetaceans play in looking after the health of the marine environment, as well as the loss to marine ecosystems resulting from declining whale populations. This would necessitate a sea-change in attitude – no longer viewed as expendable and exploitable, or competing with human interests by ‘eating all the fish’ as Japan and other whaling nations have claimed. Instead, the intrinsic ecological value of these animals would be enshrined in IWC thinking going forward. Moreover, it would mean acknowledging the extent to which we have underestimated the impact of whale population declines on marine ecosystems, and provide an additional impetus to ensure that human activity doesn’t exacerbate those declines further.