Ocean Ecosystem Engineers
While people like to see whales for pleasure, whales offer many great benefits to our environment. Joe Roman, conservation biologist, notes great whales are the “ocean’s ecosystem engineers” buffering stresses, enhancing predictability and stability, distributing nutrients to other marine life, enhancing primary productivity, providing habitat through whale falls and food through whale pump, and supporting plankton growth (University of Vermont, 2014). These benefits have far reaching environmental effects.
Whales are Person-like Beings
Whales are not just the "ocean's ecosystem engineers", they are also considered “person-like beings with intelligence, social interactions, …capacity for…suffering…[and] a wide range of experiences and activities (Wichert et al., 2016). Whales learn and share culture with other whales which was once thought only homo sapiens could do (ABC 2010). Whales ensure the “health and well being” of ocean waters with their cultural experiences and abilities (Kothari et al, 2017). While whales have person-life attributes, they have not yet been declared with the "status of a legal person", such as rivers in the Ganges and New Zealand have been (Kothari et al, 2017).
Whales Mitigate Climate Change
Since the industrial revolution the ocean has absorbed carbon emissions at the rate of 33% suggesting a healthy ocean can “support human health…. [and] mitigate…. climate change” (Johnson, 2016). Whales play an important role in keeping our oceans and environment healthy with far reaching sustainability efforts.
There are 13 difference species of great whales, 7 of which are endangered. While whales can grow from 20 to 200 tons and be 45 to 100 feet in length (World Wildlife, n.d.), the loss of a whale is something I grieve about, especially since it can take a whale, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, 10 years to reach sexual maturity to reproduce (Fisheries, 2018). We need to provide a safe environment for whales to repopulate to bring about a positive aspect to climate change.
While Canada’s history is rich in marine environment, with ocean sector growth, increased pressure is placed on the need for marine conservation and protection (Marine Protected Areas, 2016). In the St. Lawrence estuary, there is “no single” or “simple solution” to the loss of marine life, with each one being “one too many” (Parrot et al. 2016). In 2018, Canada is "implementing measures" to "help protect North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence" and the ability to change these measures as required (Canada Newswire, 2018). These measures focus on many areas, including funding for marine mammal rescue groups such as MARS - Marine Animal Rescue Society.
Due to their size, whales do not have easy maneuverability. They sleep just below the ocean surface, they are less responsive in surface activities, have limited responses, no horizontal movement, and slow vertical movement (Williams et al., 2016). While the size of whales hinder the whale's ability to move out of the way of oncoming traffic, there are also many other ways whales are affected in the ocean, one of which is pollution.
There are many other ways whales are affected in the ocean from noise pollution to trash pollution. We can all help by being more conscience to stop littering and by doing clean up when you see trash on land and in the waters.
"Marine debris, specifically plastic, is ... a major threat ...globally to marine life (Kühn et al, 2015). Humanity at large uses plastics and creates garbage everyday, not just in one sector or location. According to a Plymouth University study, "plastic pollution affects at least 700 marine species," suggesting "at least 100 million marine mammals" die "each year from plastic pollution" (One Green Planet, 2017).
"While the origin of plastics is hard to determine", plastics can start out on land but "wind and streams/rivers" can blow or move plastics and other garbage into the ocean which can not be digested by marine life (Lusher et al, 2018). While whales eat plastics and garbage, it has no nutrients to feed whales and ultimately staves them to death. In the words of the late Jacques Yves Cousteau, "We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one." Not just for marine life, but for humans too. It matters to everyone.
While we may feel the effects of plastic in the oceans is too large a problem for us to make a difference, the picking up of even one piece of garbage can help save a marine mammal - one piece at a time, in conjunction with others, all over the world, can help save lives, not just marine lives, but also human lives.
Co-existing with Whales
Whales not only work to ensure their health and well being, they also ensure the health and well being of humanity through their sustainable efforts. When you look out over the ocean and see the waves tossing to and fro, know that there are whales calming the oceans into a place of serenity, song and vibrant health for all life on earth. We need to respect them as we travel the seven seas and land, to discover all this world has to offer.
Humans and whales can co-exist but it will take more work on behalf of humans to achieve this state of equilibrium with whales and other marine life. We all need to work together. Loving whales is as empowering as they are. The oceans would simply be waters without life within them, if it were not for our "ocean's ecosystem engineers".
Maria Lisa Polegatto
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