The Current Threats to Whales

It may come as a surprise to you, but it's not whaling that is the biggest threat to our planet's whales anymore...

The North Atlantic right whale is a phenomenal aquatic animal that is awe inspiring to anyone who has any sense. Around 1935, the species was almost driven to extinction due to whaling activities. This near loss of the species resulted in it becoming illegal to hunt North Atlantic right whales. Figures reported by the NARWC show that in 1992 there were estimated to be around just 295 North Atlantic right whales still alive, and that by 2015 slow growth had increased this number to around 500 creatures. It was expected that, since the major threat and cause of their decline was whaling activities, the removal of this threat through its prohibition would cause their populations to increase and we’d see a relatively good recovery. However, this hasn’t been the case as, since 2010, birth rates have dropped by around 40%.

A recent study has highlighted that the drop in birth rates is because North Atlantic right whales are threatened by other human activities besides whaling, such as deaths caused by entanglement in fishing gear and from being hit by ships. For most of us, the thought of a whale being hit by a ship probably seems like quite a rare occurrence. However, the same study notes that it’s so common that it’s been responsible for 44% of diagnosed Right Whale mortalities between 1970 and 2009 - a significant contributor to their lack of recovery since whaling became illegal. Shipping and containerization is one of the main ways that we get all our public goods transported around the world, making it easy to forget that both commercialisation and globalisation are having immense detrimental impacts on animals. This impact isn't just limited to the destruction of animal habitats in the rainforests, but also in the ocean; humans are somehow capable of negatively impacting environments where we don't even live ourselves.

All around the world, fish is a major source of protein in people’s diets, whilst entanglement in fishing gear is a common sighting for many aquatic species. In 2015, 83% of all North Atlantic right whales were reported to have displayed some form of scarring indicative of entanglements with fishing gear. Entanglements that don’t result in death can lead to a failure to reproduce, a decline in overall health and premature mortality. Consequently, entanglement is highly likely to have contributed to the reduction in birth rates and slow recovery of the global right whale population.

Yes, making the whaling of this species illegal was a massive feat in conservation. However, Northern Right whales are still at great risk of extinction, and in order to protect the population from this threat there needs to be a significant intervention to reduce injury and mortality from fishing gear. It stands as a more indirect threat to whales, making it harder to implement than a whaling ban because - unlike with whaling - most nations around the world fish. Intervening and managing an activity that is so globally widespread, and vital to the survival of many populations, is unlikely to be easy.

On top of this, researchers predict that because the recovery rate of right whales is so small, by the time the population recovers fully it will then be subject to the challenges of climate change. This is largely because they feed by swimming with their mouths open and consume large amounts of zooplankton. These zooplankton are predicted to decline in certain regions as a result of climate change, therefore reducing food availability for the whales.

Unfortunately, it seems like Northern Right whales are fighting a losing battle to survive. Every time an action is implemented to protect them from a harmful anthropogenic threat such as whaling, they face another human-induced challenge that threatens them even more.

Find out more about this fascinating species here on the WWF site, and check out Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) to find out how you can help protect our precious oceans.