Whales, dolphins, porpoises and their looming extinction

In a letter addressed to nations across the world, marine experts have come together from 40 countries including the UK, US, South Africa and Pakistan, to call on countries with whale, dolphin and porpoise populations to protect the animals from human activities. They have also stressed that all nations must work alongside the international organisations that look to tackle these threats, such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).  

The letter, coordinated by Mark Simmonds, a marine scientist with Humane Society International and research fellow at the University of Bristol, states that more than half of the 90 living species of whale, dolphin, and porpoise, have dire conservation status. Established in 1964, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species has become the broadest source of information on the likelihood of extinction for animal, plant and fungus species.  

The North Atlantic Right Whale had its status decreased from Endangered to Critically Endangered in  January 2020, and according to their data, there is still a continuing decline. It is believed just 200-250 mature individuals now remain spread out mostly across the east coasts of the United States and Canada.  

The endangered scale. The North Atlantic Right Whale has recently moved into the critically endangered (red) category.

The vaquita, a species of porpoise found in the Gulf of California, has been classified as Critically  Endangered since 1996. The IUCN estimates just 18 individuals exist but Simmonds and the other  specialists in the letter now believe that number could be as low as 10.  

With populations rapidly decreasing, it is becoming increasingly important that policymakers get to grips with the modern-day issues that blight any chances of these animals recovering, which is entirely possible with careful planning and consideration! 

Evidence shows there were approximately 27,000 humpback whales during the 1830s, but whaling fleets decimated their numbers to around 450 by the mid-1950s. Following the ban on commercial whaling in 1986, the species would make an extraordinary recovery, and it is now thought some 84,000 individuals occupy all Earth’s major oceans. According to a separate 2019 study, the humpback population is now  predicted to be approximately 93% of its original size.  

Today, a multitude of threats exist to aquatic life. The greatest: entanglement in fishing nets and equipment, kills as many as 300,000 dolphins, porpoises and whales per year. This is a particular problem in UK waters, common dolphins and harbour porpoises are increasingly likely to become trapped in fishing gear, or bycatch. In Scotland, even minke whales are common victims of a painful and slow death from fishing gear entanglement. A pregnant minke whale was found dead on a beach in Orkney last year with a nylon fishing net stuck between its baleen, comb-like plates of keratin that allow certain species to collect krill, plankton and small  fish by filtering, sifting, and trapping prey from seawater inside their mouths. In this case, ghost fishing  gear cost one whale and her unborn female calf their lives.  

Humpback whale is cut free by divers from fishing net in Thailand | Daily  Mail Online
Whales becoming entangled in fishing nets is one of the main causes for extinction. Image: Daily Mail.

Coupled with plastic pollution, loss of prey and habitat as a result of human intervention, noise and chemical pollution, climate change, and collisions with ships, the future for our iconic marine animals looks rather bleak. But as usual in the world of wildlife conservation, all hope isn’t lost, and the humpback is perhaps one of the most successful examples of this.  

Just part of the growing movement by marine experts, the letter also stresses the importance of these animals for our oceans and ecosystems. Simmonds and Dr Vermeulen of the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit, who helped coordinate the statement, state “Whales, dolphins and porpoises are seen and enjoyed all over the world, and are valued as sentient, intelligent, social and inspiring species; we should not deny future generations the opportunity to experience them. They are also sentinels of the health of our seas, oceans and, in some cases, major river systems and the role of cetaceans in maintaining productive aquatic ecosystems, which are key for our survival as well as theirs, is also becoming clearer.” 

A solid statement that sums up the importance of conserving our marine species, I’m not sure the message  could be any clearer? 

By Hollie Tuffnell

Header image: Pixabay