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Last Updated: Friday, 11 May 2007, 02:51 GMT 03:51 UK
Beyond the harpoon - whale saving begins at home
Michael Jasny
By Michael Jasny

Hunting is not the only threat to whales, says Michael Jasny. And some of the countries which protest loudest against hunting are doing the least to safeguard whales from other dangers.

Propelled towards extinction?

This month, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meets once again to decide the future of commercial whaling and the fate of thousands of whales.

But while the world's attention is focused on the drama in Anchorage, it is worth remembering that harpoons are not the only human threats to these magnificent species.

The loss of sand eels to global warming may already be driving North Sea harbour porpoises to starvation.

Beluga whales in Canada's St Lawrence estuary have been called "living waste dumps" for the dozens of biotoxins that have accumulated in their tissues.

The endangered North Atlantic right whale subsists off the northeast coast of the US in what one Cornell University biologist has termed an "urban fog."

Many countries, like Britain, that oppose commercial whaling have also promoted activities that harm marine mammals

Unfortunately, many countries, like Britain, that have rightly opposed the recrudescence of commercial whaling have also promoted activities that harm marine mammals in ways that are less visible but perhaps equally profound.

Toxic pollution, ocean noise, overfishing, climate change - these are just some of the major threats facing marine mammals today, degrading their habitat, reducing their fitness, and making their survival less sure.

Beneath the surface

Where environmental threats are concerned, the usual excuse for inaction is scientific uncertainty.

But waiting for definitive research can be a prescription for disaster - especially for species as resistant to study as whales.

Minke whale   Francois Gohier/Ardea London

Whales may be iconic and ecologically significant, yet we know remarkably little about them.

Because they spend much of their lives underwater, they are hard to observe; because they live so long, they are difficult to track over lengths of time relevant to their survival.

To tell that a whale or dolphin population is in serious decline can take decades, millions of dollars, and the better parts of several scientific careers.

That's true even of some of the world's best-studied species.

For years, researchers at Aberdeen University in Scotland have tracked a small resident population of bottlenose dolphins in Moray Firth, well enough to give many of the animals names; and yet, according to observers, even a precipitous decline in the population - a loss of 5% annually - could take more than a decade to detect.

Imperilled on the sea

It is difficult enough estimating the number of marine mammals lost each year to whaling ships and fishing nets.

Comprehending the full impact of environmental stressors like climate change, toxic pollution, and ocean noise represents another order of difficulty.

Submarines. Image: AP
Countries must put some areas off limits not only to fishing but also to industrial, commercial, and military activities
Take the case of the North Atlantic right whale, a species that has not recovered since the end of commercial whaling and remains deeply imperilled.

In the North Atlantic, right whales successfully calve only about half as often as their cousins in the Southern Ocean.

Does noise from shipping traffic and development interfere with their ability to communicate and breed? Do pollutants along the industrialised northeast coast compromise their reproduction?

In a few instances, we can conclusively hang a population's decline or its failure to recover on a single factor. More typically, we have only a list of culprits.

But lack of scientific certainty does not justify inaction when the answers are so hard to come by and the stakes for species are so high.

Taking stock

All of this means that nations must work proactively to protect marine mammals and improve coastal health.

To begin with, managers must begin to account for environmental stress in assessing the conservation status of whales and other cetaceans.

Population assessments are the building blocks of marine mammal policy, and their scope must be as broad as the threats that these species are facing.

Whaling ship. Image: BBC
Ships can harm whales accidentally as well as through harpoons
Countries must improve their networks of marine protected areas, expanding them to include key habitat for marine mammals, and putting some areas off limits not only to fishing but also to industrial, commercial, and military activities that can undermine the health of populations.

And we must all take aggressive measures to combat climate change, control pollution, and reduce our environmental footprint.

Understanding that we truly are all linked, and that our choices will determine the lives of other species as well as ourselves, is a point that is no less urgent for being commonplace.

So by all means, let's fight the efforts of Japan, Norway, and other states to bring back the depredations of commercial whaling.

But remember that saving whales, dolphins, and porpoises - not to mention other ocean life - will also require taking strong action at home.

Michael Jasny is senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a major environmental organisation based in the US

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website

Climate food threat to porpoises
10 Jan 07 |  Science/Nature
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30 Apr 07 |  Science/Nature

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