Can TV save the world? Perhaps. Blue Planet II woke us up to the threat that whales face from plastic pollution, and the planet has responded — a 24-hour boycott in early June led to almost 250 million people renouncing plastic packaging for a day. Two weeks later, David Attenborough released a short film offering thanks, saying: “I never imagined there would be quite so many of you who would be inspired to want change.” And yet . . . Recent grim news on the impending extinction of the North Atlantic right whale proved that solving one problem is never enough. The right whale’s story is an epic tragedy — the creature’s doom lies even in its name. “Right whale” means “the right whale to hunt.” In the long years of shore-based whaling up until the early 1700s, right whales were virtually the only catchable large whales. They swim in close enough to shore, they are slow swimmers, they travel in large groups or pods, and their blubber is packed in such a way that when harpooned to death they float, allowing whalers to pick them up or sometimes simply wait for the tide to bring them ashore.
The right whale was hunted to extinction in Europe. They used to breed off the coast of the Canaries and migrate up the Atlantic coast as far as the Arctic, but, alongside the North Atlantic grey whales, had been wiped out by the 18th century. America finally recognised the threat to the population and right whale hunting was banned in 1935. Which brings us to the right whale’s second great tragedy: we have already saved them, but now we’re losing them again. At the time of the 1935 ban, there were only about 100 right whales left off the eastern seaboard of the US. Over the years numbers have risen slowly, reaching almost 500 at the start of this century. In the past few years, however, the whales have been dying, and in 2017, for the first time, not one single whale was born during the breeding season. In March, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts estimated that there were as few as 430 North Atlantic right whales left, including just 100 potential mothers. “At the rate, we are killing them off, these 100 females will be gone in 20 years,” Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at the institute, warned. Without action, the North Atlantic right whale will be extinct by 2040. “It’s human threats that are going to wipe them out,” says Patrick Ramage, the director of marine welfare at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Shipping, pile driving for oil and gas, wind farms, seismic exploration, underwater explosions from the oil and gas industries, pollution run-off, noise from shipping and naval sonar and entanglement in fishing gear are killing or harming the whales. Breeding-age females aren’t breeding because they’re having difficulty sustaining their weight and health, so they’re not calving.”
In a sense, Ramage says, we all kill whales through our increasing demand for consumer products, which drives the growth in high-speed shipping and the increased use of outmoded fishing techniques. Shipping strikes and entanglement in nets and lobster-pot ropes cause the greatest number of direct deaths. Chemical and noise pollution are harder to link to individual deaths, but they have a devastating effect on whales all over the world. In the UK, for instance, our flourishing coastal killer whale population has been reduced to just eight animals around the quieter waters of Scotland’s Western Isles. Rob Deaville heads the Zoological Society of London’s Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, which has been called the CSI of the sea. His team conducts post-mortems on dead whales washed ashore to establish the cause of death. The last killer whale in English waters died in 2001, near Liverpool. “I think it’s highly likely that we’ll see the last killer whales in UK waters during my lifetime,” Deaville says. Over the 25 years of the Strandings programme, 4,000 whales have been washed ashore — about 700 a year. Deaville and his team examine 100 to 150 of them. The smaller cetaceans — the official term for the group of marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises — can be carried to Deaville’s lab, but the larger creatures have to be examined in situ. Tourists on sandy beaches are often shocked to see Deaville’s team slice animals open with a large flensing knife, then use the winch on their 4×4 to remove larger organs.
Deaville is looking for obvious signs of cause of death. Parallel cuts or blunt trauma damage are a tell-tale sign of ship-strike, while other lesions suggest that the animal has become entangled in fishing gear. The majority of man-made deaths in UK waters he has seen are caused by fishing gear: nets, ghost nets lost or cut loose by trawlers and creel lines attached to crab and lobster pots. Ship-strikes come second. While such strikes are the chief cause of death for the right whale, they account for only about 20 per cent of UK deaths, says Dr Peter Evans, the founder and director of the Sea Watch Foundation. “We don’t always see the full effect of ship-strikes because the whales don’t always float to shore — tankers can carry them on their bows for miles,” he explains. “We recently had a young fin whale get wrapped around a vessel off southwest Ireland [and] brought into Liverpool still attached to the ship.” Sometimes the cause of death is direct and obvious; other times it’s a series of events. In October 2016, for instance, a young female fin whale washed up on the north Norfolk coast. When Deaville’s team examined it, they saw a deep gash in its body-wall and a damaged spinal column almost certainly caused by a ship strike. Because of its injuries, the whale struggled to dive to feed at depth, causing it to starve slowly to death.
The hardest man-made deaths to pin down are those caused directly or indirectly by noise or chemical pollution. Plastic pollution is a shocking global concern, but in UK waters only one stranded whale’s death was caused by plastic in the past 25 years. “Noise is a burning issue,” Evans says. “Different noise sources affect species differently. Oil and gas exploration, for instance, use seismic airguns to map the seafloor. The noise is deafening for bathing whales like the humpback or the minke, whose hearing is so sensitive they can hear ships coming for hundreds of kilometres. A blue whale can hear a ship coming for 24 hours.” Alongside this pounding, there’s active sonar, used by the military to locate submarines. This frequency disturbs beaked whales such as the Cuvier’s beaked whales, which flee from the noise with such fear-driven madness that whole pods can end up on shore in huge, heartbreaking mass strandings. Then there’s the cruel irony of pile driving in marine construction. It’s increasingly common off the coast of the UK when we build wind farms. The noise can destroy habitats for creatures such as the porpoise. Off the coasts of Holland, Germany and Denmark there have been some measures to mitigate against noise, including a kind of bubble wrap, but for now, renewable energy is coming at an unexpected cost. For the last eight UK killer whales, Deaville explains, noise can have a hugely damaging effect. The creatures hunt by echolocation, sending out whistles, clicks, pulsed calls and low-frequency pop to navigate and locate prey. Interference in those signals can send them off in the wrong direction or scare them away from their natural feeding grounds, causing slow death by starvation.
Even when killer whales can eat, it can prove fatal due to polychlorinated biphenyls, an organic compound discovered in the early 20th century and banned in the 1970s. The chemicals are so toxic that the US navy removed them from its nuclear submarine fleet in the 1960s; the effects of the chemicals used as coolants was more threatening to crews than the radiation of the nuclear warheads. PCBs, however, take years to degrade and are still being washed into the oceans from landfill sites. In 1999 the British Dietetic Association, alarmed by government research on dioxins and PCBs in fresh fish, advised healthy adults to eat just one fish a week. “Killer whales can’t take that advice,” Deaville says. “We see astronomically high levels of PCB in blubber — hundreds of times over the lethal limit.” One UK killer whale — called Lulu — was found dead on the Isle of Tiree in Scotland in 2016, killed by fishing lines but with its body containing one of the highest levels of PCBs recorded. “PCBs mess with the immune system and the reproductive system,” Evans says. “That last pod of killer whales hasn’t had a calf, even though some are of reproductive age.”
Deaville says: “The good news is, things have changed so they can still change. The UK used to be a whaling nation. Petticoat Lane is near the Thames because whalebone was a key part of corsets and petticoats, and the Millennium Dome was built on the site of an old whale-rendering plant. We have gone from a nation of whalers to a nation of conservationists in such a short time — just two or three generations. When we all act together, we can do anything.” The UK has led the world in whale conservation since the 1970s. The international ban on commercial whaling was signed in Brighton in 1986, and the London-based International Marine Organisation is lobbying governments to change shipping lanes to ensure that ships steer clear of whales. Ramage showed The Times a series of letters and reports that the IMO have prepared and sent to the government of Sri Lanka asking them to move a particularly busy shipping lane that kills between 30 and 50 blue whales every year. On both sides of the Atlantic scientists such as Ramage and Deaville are working with experimental technology. They are using Bluetooth-powered lobster pots that can rise to the surface by inflating airbags — meaning they don’t need leads or ropes — and apps that let mariners know the most recent whale sightings and offer advice on steering clear.
So what can we do? “We can all recycle plastic, but ship-strikes, entanglement and marine pollution are supranational issues,” Deaville says. “Write to your MP. Keep the pressure up. In the UK we are already a nation of whale conservationists. Every political party has supported our work for the past 25 years because the public believes in this work. Thanks to that funding we can offer support to partners and colleagues around the world. We’ve saved the whales once — we can save them again.”
Credit: The Times, 2 August 2018.