New threats to great whales

Posted: 26 October 2001

A series of emerging threats are endangering the survival of the great whales, despite existing controls on hunting, according to a report released by the WWF, the conservation agency.

The report, Wanted Alive! Whales in the Wild (July 2001), 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, and menaced by toxic contamination, entanglement in fishing gear, intensive oil and gas development in feeding grounds, as well as 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.

Tale of Humpback WhaleR. Wicklund / © NOAAWWF 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 Phillips.

The WWF report calls for a number of actions to be taken to protect whales. These measures 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 whalemeat, and creating more whale sanctuaries and marine protected areas.

  • A new whale sanctuary established by the Cook Islands Government in September (2001), is believed to be the largest yet declared by an individual government in waters under its jurisdiction. The sanctuary area takes in roughly one per cent of the entire Pacific Ocean. The unilateral action is a result of the Islands' frustration at having its proposal for a whale sanctuary rejected for second year running by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at its annual meeting in July (2001). Sperm and humpback and southern right whales swim through the waters of the Cook Islands. Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Robert Woonton, hopes his government's decision will increase tourism, already the leading economic sector, by encouraging whale watchers to the islands.

    Related links:

    Wanted Alive! Whales in the Wild

    Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society