An article on RedOrbit.com forced us to return our attention from the forest back to the ocean. It points to a recent scientific paper by the University of Vermont’s Joe Roman and nine other whale biologists from around the globe. Published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment their study came to the unsurprising conclusion that whale populations play an important role in what amounts to the largest single ecosystem of our planet. Whales provide vital ecosystem services and are seen as a stabilizing force against the expected effects of climate change.
While Homo sapiens undoubtedly has the widest distribution of any species on earth, having spread out over all continents except Antarctica, whales are no less omnipresent and found all over in the oceans . They are fellow mammals that evolved over the course of millions of years from land dwelling animals to inhabitants of the sea, which in fact represents one of the most dramatic transformations in evolutionary history. Their ancestors walked and hunted on land but now whales are found in all of the world’s oceans; each year they migrate long distances from their cold-water feeding grounds to warm-water breeding areas.
Like all mammals, whales breathe air into lungs, are warm-blooded and feed their young milk. Depending on the species their average lifespan ranges from forty to a hundred years but their rate of reproduction is slow. Whales spawn few offspring but calves do have a high probability of survival. Once a calf is born the mother whale will feed her new-born by producing a thick milk (which is about 35 to 50% fat) in her mammary glands; she will squirt it through the water into her baby’s mouth. The nursing period for baby whales lasts over a year and there is a very strong bond between mother and calf. Females mature in about five to seven years; males between seven and ten. Generally young whales do have a reasonably good chance of surviving to maturity since to them the only real predators are humans… Whales come in two varieties: baleen and toothed whales. Baleen whales have a comb-like strainer on the upper jaw, which is their system to filter plankton, small fish and crustaceans from the water. Generally they are the larger species. In fact the very largest living animal on earth is the blue whale which can grow to be over 100 ft. long and weigh 180 tons. Toothed whales are smaller. They have teeth and hunt fish, squid, and other marine mammals. They sense their surrounding environment through echolocation. Whales also communicate with each other using sounds. Depending on the species some of these ‘whale-songs’ can be heard for many miles underwater. The largest brain on earth belongs to the sperm whale, the same species as the main character in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The adult sperm whale brain is about 8,000 cubic centimeters, six times the size of our own 1300 cubic centimeters. The large brain supports the complex intelligence required for a socially complicated and highly communicative lifestyle.
The recently published study now points to the crucial role whales perform towards ocean health and the state of fisheries around the world. Whales recycle nutrients by feeding in deep waters and releasing fecal plumes near the surface. This whale waste supports plankton—a cyclical phenomenon described as a “whale pump.” Whales also transfer nutrients thousands of miles by feeding at high latitudes and calving at lower latitudes. Finally there is the role they play in death. When their carcasses drop to the sea floor, they sequester carbon and support numerous scavenger species. The researchers argue that dozens, possibly hundreds, of species depend on these “whale falls” in the deep sea. As long-living species, a slowly recovering population of whales will assist in stabilizing the oceans against the expected effects of climate change.
Of course it remains impossible to determine the total global population with any degree of accuracy but it is estimated that there are today still over one million whales swimming through the world’s oceans. Regrettably many of the eighty different species are now considered endangered. A ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986 with the establishment of the International Whaling Commission but there remain loopholes that allow some countries to carry on with commercial whaling and over the past thirty years, in spite of the ban, over 30,000 have been killed. Japan, Norway and Iceland still slaughter 2000 whales between them each year; the whalers from these ‘advanced’ nations operate vessels that are akin to warships and usually employ grenade harpoons. They subject their prey to a particularly violent and cruel death.
Commercial whaling is totally different from what has been practiced for hundreds of years in places like Lamalera, on the south coast of Lembata in the Indonesian archipelago. Here hunts are still carried out in a traditional manner, with bamboo spears from small wooden outriggers, built without nails and with sails woven from palm leaves. The whales are killed by the harpooner leaping from the boat onto the back of the animal to drive in the harpoon. The preferred quarry is the sperm whale but catching these with hand-thrown harpoons from small open boats is no easy task and it is by no means an uneven contest between man and whale. The tail flukes of a whale can easily smash the hull to smithereens. Boats are often overturned by their prey and harpooners have been disabled or killed. After a successful hunt the traditional rules ensure that every part of the animal is used. About half of the catch is kept in the village; the rest is traded in nearby markets. Such traditional whaling also takes place on the island of Bequia in the West Indies, where a few diehard whalers still go out on wooden rowing boats with hand-held harpoons whenever migrating whales are spotted. Similarly such small scale subsistence whaling is carried out by various Inuit groups in Canada but their hunt is not intended for commercial purposes and the meat caught is for local consumption only.
We do not object to these aboriginal practices but the Japanese charade of‘scientific’whaling is a shameless lie and government subsidized commercial whaling by other advanced modern countries like Norway and Iceland does not make any sense either. IT ALL HAS TO STOP !
This picture shows the factory ship Nisshin Maru hauling in a Minke whale mother and a one year old calf . It was taken in the Southern Ocean by agents from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service vessel. The commercial hunting of whales is prohibited in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which was designated by the International Whaling Commission in 1994, but Japan catches the animals there under a “scientific research” loophole in the moratorium. The results of the research the program is carrying out are not readily available but Japan makes no secret of the fact that they end up on plates and we do note that Japan’s whaling mother ship has been awarded a halal certificate to prove the whales it takes from the Antarctic Ocean are slaughtered in accordance with Muslim law. (Agence France Presse – Huffington Post – 22 Jan 2014)