Do you remember tv shows and movies with heavy themes of conservation? I was a 90s kid and remember all sorts like Captain Planet, FernGully, and Free Willy.
Free Willy was my personal favorite, and I don't think I'm alone. I'm convinced that whales were everyone's favorite animal in the first grade thanks to one plucky teenager and an adorable baby orca.
While strides have been made to protect whale habitats and prevent them from going extinct, whales are still under significant threat.
Here are some of the biggest threats facing whale populations according to WWF.
Commercial whaling is the hunting of whales for their meat and blubber. Whaling was most common during the industrial revolutions because their blubber can be turned into a certain type of oil that was popular during the time.
Whale oil is rarely used today. In 1931, an international cooperation on whaling convened which resulted in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946.
The goal of the convention was to conserve whale stocks and organize the whaling industry to prevent whale extinction.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling in 1986. The IWC consists of 88 countries regulates the hunting of 13 species of great whales. However, Iceland, Norway, and Japan have all objected to the ban and have continued to hunt whales under the "scientific whaling" loophole.
Whales are allowed to be hunted for scientific purposes with a permit, but it's believed certain countries may exploit this loophole.
Recently, Japan has withdrawn from the IWC to resume commercial whaling.
As the ocean's waters warm, less oxygen available. This will increasingly put stress on creatures, habitats, their food chain, etc. Higher temperatures cause more stress which increases their metabolism, which means they need more oxygen. It's really a vicious cycle. Read more about what happens when oxygen starts running low in the ocean.
Specifically for whales, climate change may impact their migration patterns. The depletion of the ozone layer and rise in UV radiation will affect the krill population which is one of the primary food sources for many whales.
Ship strikes are becoming more common and one of the leading causes of death for the whale and dolphin community. Ship strikes happen when ships collide with cetaceans, and as traffic, over our seas increases, we can expect to see a rise in fatalities due to ship strikes.
Currently, it's difficult to track how many cetaceans lose their lives to ship strikes because it's not common to report these incidences. In 2009 the IWC established a database to track when strikes happen.
Our oceans are polluted from toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and plastic. Whale and dolphin tissue from around the world has shown high levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
The levels of these chemicals have been shown to cause damage to the reproductive and immune systems of the animals.
These pollutants can be carried through air and water currents all over the world. Seemingly pristine environments untouched by industry can contain surprisingly high levels of pollutants.
The Arctic, for instance, is so cold, has little sunlight and bacterial activity that chemical compounds take much longer to break down allowing them to pollute the area for much longer. You can read more about it here.
On top of the chemical compounds found in the water, there's also the issue with plastic. More than 8 million tons of plastic enters into the ocean every year. Much of it winds up breaking down to microplastics which are under 5mm in size.
Whales have been washing up in recent years with so much plastic in their bellies which they mistake for food.
oil and gas development:
This affects marine life in many ways. The oil industry poses three distinct threats like hearing damage due to seismic testing, pollution, and habitat loss.
The development may disturb the resting, breeding, and feeding of many whales and dolphins. The seismic surveys for offshore oil and gas are very loud and can interfere with both dolphins and whales communication.
After underwater blasting was used in the construction of oil installations, whales off the coast of Newfoundland and Alaska were found to have hearing damage.
Loss of habitat is directly linked to an increase in human activity like landfills, harbors, fisheries, boat traffic, resort development etc. in marine environments. These areas are vital for dolphins and whales to feed, rest, and breed.