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Why We Need Whales To Fight Climate Change

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

We’ve all heard we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and why. Accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation – lead to a heating of the earth's surface. This in turn leads to impacts such as shifting seasons, rising sea-levels, disappearing Arctic sea-ice and more intense heat waves.

But did you know that saving the whales is the solution?

The conservation of whales plays a key role in the race to stop this planetary crisis, some scientists say. “Contrary to most terrestrial organisms, which release their carbon into the atmosphere after death, carcasses of large marine fish sink and sequester carbon in the deep ocean,” according to the authors of a study published last October in the journal Science Advances. This is an example of what’s known as “blue carbon,” and the principle applies to whales as much as to fish.

The fishing and whaling industries exacerbate the gases being released in the atmosphere as a result of capture.

When whales die of natural causes, their bodies have captured carbon during their lives, fall to the bottom of the sea, keeping carbon dioxide on the ocean floor.

A 2019 report in the magazine of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that “each great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries.” Rebuilding populations of large baleen whales would store carbon in their bodies equivalent to the amount in 272,000 acres of forest, “an area the size of the Rocky Mountain National Park,” in Colorado, U.S.

Whales Are Still Being Hunted

Japan has a very dark record regarding whales. On June 29, 2019, Japan exited the IWC (International Whaling Commission) so it could restart commercial whale hunting in its maritime territory after a 31-year hiatus. It did so immediately, by July 1 of that year.

For 2020, the number of large whales it could capture — within Japanese waters only — was 171 minke whales, 187 Bryde’s whales and 25 sei whales, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. The numbers for 2021 are reportedly the same.

In addition to Japan, Norway and Iceland are the two other countries that currently allow commercial whaling.

Decades of industrialized whaling greatly reduced whale populations. The IMF magazine report calculates that if the 1.3 million or so whales alive today are left to rebound to their pre-whaling numbers of 4 million to 5 million, “it could significantly increase the amount of phytoplankton in the oceans.”

Even if phytoplankton productivity increased by just 1%, it “would capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of two billion mature trees,” the report says.

Why We Need Whales To Fight Climate Change

In addition to the carbon dioxide that whales capture in their bodies and store deep in the ocean when they die, they also fertilize the ocean with their feces and urine, leading to large phytoplankton blooms.

Phytoplankton produce at least 50% of the oxygen in the atmosphere and capture an estimated 40% of all the carbon dioxide produced in the world, according to the IMF report.

“To put things in perspective, we calculate that this is equivalent to the amount of CO2 captured by 1.70 trillion trees — four Amazon forests’ worth,” the report says.

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