Whales have featured a lot recently in the UK news. Firstly, there is the new and splendid exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum where a blue whale skeleton now adorns the great entrance hall. Secondly, many of us have been enjoying the wonderful whale images provided by the BBC’s Blue Planet II. In its final sobering episode, focused on threats to the world’s oceans, Sir David Attenborough also used the whales as his one prime example of conservation success. He noted that nations had successfully joined together to reverse the major negative impacts of commercial whaling, agreeing on a moratorium on commercial whaling in the 1980s that allowed some populations to start to recover. There is no doubt that the moratorium was one of the big conservation successes of the 20th century, but this brief but important comment by an esteemed naturalist and commentator really deserves more elaboration.
Above all, it’s essential to understand that the ban on whaling is not set in stone for all time. At every meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the pro-whaling nations attack the commercial whaling ban, trying to chip away at it or overturn it altogether. They have done so even before the ban came into place, and whale-friendly nations, organisations and individuals have to constantly work to protect the ban from that well-funded attack from not just the three nations that continue commercial whaling in various guises, but also the array of other countries that they have recruited to their side. The major part of the moratorium’s success is in its enduring maintenance in the face of such onslaught.
Of course, the pro-whaling nations also quite like the claims of widespread whale population recovery because they can use this to help build their case that these populations can again withstand attempts to harvest them. The truth is that many whale populations have still not recovered, and some never will.
One such species is the Gulf of Mexico whale which was recently formally registered as Critically Endangered by the IUCN (the World Conservation Union – which maintains the Red List of endangered species). This is a population that lives only in the Gulf of Mexico, currently classified as a distinct population within the species complex known as Bryde’s whales, and considered to be “geographically, demographically, and genetically isolated” with only some 33 individuals remaining. The original cause of its demise was whaling but currently it is imperilled by all the modern activities going on in its limited habitat. Gulf of Mexico whales don’t migrate, and so if their local environment is threatened, there is quite literally no escape.
Back in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill took place close to the main habitat of Gulf of Mexico whales, exposing an estimated 48% of the population to oil. Some 22% of females suffered from reproductive failure, and 18% of the overall population suffered adverse health effects. In addition, these whales are also threatened by entanglement in fishing gear, being hit by ships, as well as man-made noise pollution. In short, their only home has become distinctly inhospitable.
I talked with Peter Corkeron who led the IUCN review of the Gulf of Mexico whale which caused its new sad status to be registered and he said:
It was the genetic analysis published in 2014 that showed these whales are unique, and led to the listing as Critically Endangered. It seems that through the 18th and 19th centuries, open-boat whaling killed many of them. Since the 1990s, we’ve got estimates of their numbers and, whilst they’ve probably never been all that numerous, industries that we know affect whales are now present in their range.
This is the first time that the extinction of an open ocean marine mammal species is likely to occur as the result of industrialisation rather than hunting! Other whale populations with restricted habitats such as the Gulf of California fin whales, Gulf of Thailand Eden’s whales, and Madagascar Omura’s whale, could all face the same predicament because they are simply unable to move away from adverse changes.
It is great that Blue Planet II used the whales as an illustration of international success, but let’s not be complacent about the efforts of those who would like to see it destroyed so that they can kill whales for profit unchallenged. More positively, the once-outmoded whaling club of the IWC is now evolving into a modern conservation body and is leading work with others on a range of threats that whales and their kin are facing in the modern world. Whilst this may be a more diffuse success than the global moratorium on whaling, it should be recognised as a major gain for ocean governance.
A large number of countries, including the EU, have just issued a strong statement condemning Japan’s ongoing whaling. Commercial whaling remains a cruel anachronism that should be abandoned by all nations, not least because it distracts us from all the other serious whale protection issues on which we should most urgently engage.