Whale conservation – What you can do

August 11, 2022

Get inspired, feel the connection!

In my opinion the will to protect anything – may it be a building, a landmark, an ecosystem or as in our case cetacean species, starts with inspiration and connection. We are much more likely to care about something that we feel connected or even emotionally attached to. One of the many ways to do so is by watching documentaries and learning about how awesome these whales and dolphins really are. The wonder of a „WOW!“ can really change lives. There is huge growing interest and a market for nature documentaries that reflect how much more we care and are interested in these beautiful places and species. This article lists several things that you can do to contribute to whale conservation.

Whale and man - Whale conservation

Join a whale watching tour

For the same reason, you might consider joining a whale watching tour. Depending on how it is done, it can be a sustainable way of environmental education and seeing cetaceans in a non-harmful way. An encounter with a cetacean in its natural habitat is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in nature. If a tour is done well, follows best practices and has an educational element it has the potential to foster an appreciation for wildlife in its natural environment and contribute to whale conservation. Moreover it raises awareness of whale and dolphin conservation needs.  You might be so inspired that you participate in environmental and conservation actions. That would be awesome!

It also benefits the local economy. The latest report of the International Fund for Animal Welfare from 2008 showed that 13 million people participated in whale watching in 119 countries and territories, generating a total expenditure of $2.1 billion. Furthermore, an estimated 3,300 operators offered whale watching trips around the world. The operators employed an estimated 13,200 people. With the exception of the COVID Pandemic years, the industry and tourist sectors have continued to grow.

Iceland has become the biggest whale watching destination in Europe. Whale watching started quite recently in 1991. 24 whale species have been seen around Iceland. With an 18.3% market share of the tourism industry, whale-watching is steadily becoming popular in Iceland. 20% of all visitors to Iceland go whale watching, that means about 364,000 people in 2019.

Whale watching boat and whale - Whale conservation

 

Start with the person in the mirror! Lifestyle changes

I‘m sorry to say this, but it could be considered quite hypocritical to go on the streets and demand more strict regulations for the protection of cetacean species (good on you for doing so though!) and at the same time continue to be part of their demise in a lot of different indirect ways. If your words and actions (or way of living) go hand in hand, you will be a believable role model for change and protection. Let’s look at a few of the things that you you can “easily“ implement in your daily life.

Plastic pollution

Plastic is a major hazard for many seabirds and all the species that live in the sea. Mass production only started in 1950s, but has reached a production of 8.3 billion metric tons. 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building. Plastic seems to smell like food for a lot of species at sea, or- to be more precise, like algae that is breaking down naturally. This algae is what krill, a crustacean species that acts as the main prey for many species, is mainly feeding on. So animals have learned to associate the smell of large quantities of algae breaking down with the abundance of krill. Plastic debris provide the perfect platform for algae to thrive. But unfortunately instead of krill the seabirds only find the debris that they mistake for food. That is why they are eating so much of it with devastating effects on their health. With a full tummy, but without any nutrition, they are slowly starving without noticing. Not only that, but plastic also has toxic effects and entangles many animals. There are a couple of things that you can do in your everyday life to reduce the amount of plastics in the water. Every single bag makes a difference!

  1. Reduce your use of single-use plastics including water bottles. It´s time to buy a reusable one (also for your coffee) and have them with you as much as you can.
  2. Recycle properly: Just 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide today. But proper recycling is very important as it helps to keep plastics out of the ocean. Moreover it also reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation.
  3. Be a conscientious consumer when you‘re shopping. Choose natural fibres for your clothing, because microplastics in your synthetics get washed out and will end up in the waterways. Clothes made of cotton, wool and other natural fibers are preferable. Or/ and buy used items whenever possible. When you go shopping, you can also be packaging smart. What I mean by that is: you could rather buy the product with less packaging than another product of the same quality and similar price with a lot of unnecessary plastic packaging. The amount of plastic packaging could become a new criteria for the things you buy.
  4. Spread the Word: Stay informed on the plastic issue and help make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family about how they can be part of the solution and avoid unnecessary plastic.

Bird on a polluted beach - Whale conservation

 

Fish eating habits

Please be aware of your fish consumption. Eating fish means supporting the fishing industry. And you really don‘t want to do that if you care about whales and dolphins (and fish). Because entanglement in fishing gear is now the leading threat for whales and dolphins around the globe. It is estimated to cause at least 300,000 deaths per year. This by-catch has led to the almost certain demise of the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita in the Gulf of California. But even much larger species, like the false killer whale are caught and killed in nets all around the globe all year long. And if they don‘t die directly in the nets, some swim for months with gear wrapped around their bodies, entrapping them and sometimes sawing into their flesh until they die from infections or starvation. Or they can‘t make it to the surface anymore and drown. Those who escape can be left with painful injuries.

Entangled whale - Whale conservation

And please don‘t think that farmed seafood/fish is any better. Lots of pollutants, medicine being fed and spread to and by the fish, lots of inbreeding with natural fish stocks that weakens the genetic pool of the wild strains and feeding farmed fish with fish meal from wild fish are just a few of the big issues regarding this topic. There is a good overview of these issues by the WWF here:

There is also a red list published and updated by Greenpeace with fish species that you should try to avoid eating. Have a look at the guide per country by WWF below.

There are many lists by different NGO‘s about companies that do a better or worse job at supporting sustainable fishing. To find fish with the lowest impact, look out for pole and line-caught or one-by-one fishing.  Find examples here:

By eating less and being more mindful of the fish that you buy you can make a difference, because it sends a message to the fishing and retail industry to make stronger efforts to protect whales and dolphins. Some people are making a conscious decision to stop eating fish altogether. This is a personal choice, but it can be a powerful one.

 

CO2 Emissions reduction

There is a million things you could do to when it comes to your carbon footprint and thereby your influence on climate change that is impacting the smallest organisms of the ocean to the largest cetaceans. Traditional feeding grounds might shift or deplete completely because of warmer waters that some cold water fish can‘t inhibit. Opening ice means less sheltered places for species like the narwhal that their predators – the orca couldn‘t reach before. Cut the car: bikes, buses, skateboards, feet – use them! It´s good for the environment, and the more active you are yourself, also for your health.

For more information, check here:

europa.eu/youth/get-involved/sustainable-development/how-reduce-my-carbon-footprint_en

And for a full guide, refer to here:

www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-reduce-your-carbon-footprint

A good way of general thinking is to make „Reuse, Recycle, Repair“ your official motto and guideline for all kinds of consumer choices and everyday decisions.

Keep the ocean trash free - Whale conservation

 

Get active!

Volunteering is a great opportunity to get close to your beloved whales and dolphins, while at the same time get hands on in whale conservation work. You can contribute to the conservation efforts of these magnificent creatures. You can also join activities such as identification projects to help understand their migration and distribution. There are countless providers and offers and you can easily find them online.

You can find programs here, but there are many other websites too:

Wherever you might be living, join some local clean ups if you can. There is likely some water body close to you and so any material will be transported into the ocean sooner or later. You can prevent that by helping your community to stay clean. This is one of the most direct and rewarding ways to fight (ocean) plastic pollution. You can also  go to a waterway and collect waste on your own or with friends or family. Even make a competition out of it, with the one collecting most rubbish winning a prize, if that´s something your group of people would enjoy. Just be creative about it and make it fun.

Cleaning up beaches - Whale conservation

 

Join Citizen Science Projects

Science often sounds boring or dry, but this is actually fun. You get to take all the beautiful shots of the animals – especially the flukes of humpbacks and dorsal fins of orcas and upload them, so that scientists can identify them and thereby deduce their migration routes and different kinds of behaviour that might then eventually lead to management strategies like Marine Mammal Protected Areas or legislation regarding reduced speed among others. Check these pages among others:

Donate

Lots of research is needed to understand these beautiful cetaceans. This understanding will make it easier to make good management decisions and lead to science based best practices for responsible whale watching among other activities (fishing). You could help organisations keeping their amazing work up by supporting them financially. There are also lots of programs out there to adopt whales and dolphins. It´s a wonderful way to support an individual that you are particularly interested in and observe how its doing.

You can find examples here:

 

Visit whale-friendly restaurants while in Iceland and help whale conservation

People want to try whale meat for different reasons during their stay in Iceland. It might be sheer curiosity for the taste or because it is marketed as a traditional Icelandic dish. However, this is a marketing lie: in a 2018 survey only 2% of Icelanders reported that they eat whale meat regularly, which means six times or more per year. 84% said they had never eaten it!

Tourists are now creating the highest demand for whale meat in Iceland. The meat came from minke whales- hunted right here in Faxafloi Bay. Since the COVID pandemic, the company has stopped its activity. However, one company remains that continued the hunt of the vulnerable fin whales in 2022 again.

But things are changing: between 2009 and 2017, the number of tourists who said they tried whale meat dropped by 70%. Now less than 10% of the restaurants in Reykjavik offer whale meat, while more than half signed up to be “whale friendly”. The pressure is increasing. Please only visit these ones, if you want to encourage change. You can often find them with the help of the logo: „Meet us, don‘t eat us“ as shown below.

You can also sign a petition to end whaling in Iceland here:Meet us, don't eat us! Whale conservation

Some good news at the end: the Fisheries minister said that whaling no longer seems to be a profitable activity as demand dwindles. Therefore it seems likely that whaling might be stopped in 2024, when current licenses will expire. Hurray!

 

See things in perspective

Things can look very dire in some of the documentaries and the news you can find online. Big issues like by-catch, whaling, plastic and noise pollution, entanglements and climate change: the list is endless of what is going wrong and how much cetacean species are suffering. I’m certainly not here to tell you that it´s all not so bad. What I want to point out to you is that there is another side of the coin: Things are actually getting better in many ways. Just some examples: following the whaling moratorium, the population of Western gray whales increased from 115 individuals in 2004 to 174 in 2015. The western south Atlantic humpback population, which numbered fewer than 1,000 for nearly 40 years, has recovered to close to 25,000. Also in the north Atlantic, including Icelandic waters, populations have recovered to perhaps pre-whaling levels and number over 12,000 animals. The population of bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort seas has been increasing annually at over 3% since 1978 and may be approaching pre-exploitation levels. In 2011 its abundance was nearly 17,000 animals. The majestic blue whale is recovering throughout its range.

Many populations and species are slowly recovering (while others are continuing to decrease). Our perception of cetaceans has changed and we start to care more about them. Instead of hunting and killing them, we often choose to join whale watching tours in order to see them. Around 100 million people from high income countries have participated in whale watching at some time, a figure that is increasing by 10 million each year.

As an individual I often feel overwhelmed about how little influence I really have on all the pressures and systematic issues there are that are affecting cetaceans and other animals and their ecosystems around the globe. I try to take a minimalist, but optimistic approach. Everything I do or change out of love and compassion for another species is already a tiny step that wouldn’t have been made, if I didn’t care. And as awareness and respect are rising in many individuals we can really transform our lifestyles and make a difference within our lifetime. The beautiful humpback whale is already projected to make a full recovery to pre-whaling numbers by 2050 .

 

Written by Daniel Blankenheim

Beluga whale - whale conservation

Resources

Plastic pollution

  1. https://www.oceanicsociety.org/resources/7-ways-to-reduce-ocean-plastic-pollution-today/
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment
  3. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/animals-eat-ocean-plastic-because-of-smell-dms-algae-seabirds-fish
  4. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2018/05/11/can-fight-plastic-pollution/

Whaling

  1. https://www.paciorg/blog/ways-to-save-the-whales/
  2. https://www.ifaw.org/international/journal/saving-whales-iceland-ifaw-approach-jalou-langeree
  3. https://www.ifaw.is/
  4. https://www.ifaw.is/history/
  5. https://uk.whales.org/our-4-goals/stop-whaling/whaling-in-iceland/
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_in_Iceland
  7. https://grapevine.is/news/2022/03/23/company-aims-to-hunt-whales-this-summer/

Whale Watching

  1. https://icewhale.is/

Whale recovery

  1. https://iwc.int/about-whales/status
  2. https://www.awe.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/cetacean-snapshot.pdf

Fish Eating

  1. https://uk.whales.org/our-4-goals/prevent-deaths-in-nets/

Lifestyle changes

  1. https://europa.eu/youth/get-involved/sustainable-development/how-reduce-my-carbon-footprint_en