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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Blue whale population on the rise, yet facing continued endangerment

According to the research of Cole Monnohan and Trevor Branch, scientists at the University of Washington’s Branch Lab, California blue whales are at 97 percent of previous historic levels.

Their research reveals a rebound for the California blue whale population, while other groups of blue whales are still lagging behind in numbers.

Branch shared his and Monnohan’s data of other populations with The Guilfordian via an email interview —the Chilean blue whale population  is at seven percent of its historic levels, while the Antarctic population is at a mere one percent.

Through analysis of repeated whale calls in certain areas of the world, Monnohan and Branch computed an estimate of the blue whale’s population by calculating a count of whale losses due to whaling.

What, according to Branch, has caused this remarkable recovery?

“The end of whaling,” Branch said. “A ban was implemented in 1966, but illegal Soviet whaling continued until 1971. After that, no blue whales were caught in the North Pacific. Stopping whaling allowed them to recover.

“It’s good news: if we stop whaling, hunting, fishing, shooting, logging of endangered species, we can usually expect them to recover eventually,” said Branch.

If only it were that simple.

“It is rubbish to act as if we have a correct estimate,” stated Michael Fishbach, co-founder and co-execcutive director of The Great Whale Conservancy. “We do not know what the population is.”

To Fishbach, while the media is reporting a story of success and triumph, many of the details are unsupported

“The media looked at (Monnohan and Branch’s) paper in a way that it was a happy story, when in fact it was a very false story,” said Fishbach.

In Fishbach’s opinion, there is no precise manner in which we can represent a population of an endangered species whose numbers have not been legally or accurately recorded in history.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recent studies have revealed discrepancies in Soviet whaling ships’ records, meaning far more blue whales were killed historically than previously thought.

“(The Soviet whalers concealed their illegal activities through) altering of reported biological data to camouflage catches of undersized animals or lactating females and over-reporting of legal species to provide credible catch totals,” according to a report by NOAA.

This blatant disregard for international regulation has been called by some marine biologists “arguably one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century,” according to Pacific Standard.

Given these discrepancies, it is difficult to determine what the historical population has been. One thing is clear, though. The blue whales’ removal has had an important impact on their ecosystem.

Whales produce exceedingly iron-rich waste literally fertilizing the seas. The waste floats to the surface of the ocean, inducing the growth of phytoplankton, according to NPR.

“Their poop is actually circulating nutrients around the ocean,” said Fishbach. “You don’t just pluck life from an ecosystem and not expect change.”

Seven of the 13 Great Whale species are endangered or vulnerable, along with 16,938 other known species globally, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

“It’s time to get serious,” said Fishbach.  “Listen to the people who work the closest with these animals.”

In order to help, we must ask how we can help.

Although the fight for whales may not be as rosy as Monnohan and Branch’s study suggests, their population has recovered somewhat.

Factors such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act implemented in 1972 — a halt to large-scale commercial salt evaporation plants as well as an end to low frequency active sonar waves being utilized by the Navy — have all helped the whale populations to increase.

“Recovery for some of our local endangered species works similarly in this sense,” said Megan White, assistant professor of biology. “If we don’t have regulations to protect them, which is one thing that has helped the whales, it makes it significantly more difficult to support them.”

So what can we do from here?

“We need to make it our responsibility to help,” Fishbach said.

“Have compassion, understand their plight and go to them. Give these animals rights to life.”

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