By Mina Shah
Last week, a sperm whale washed up and died on a beach in Hunstanton, England. This might not be such a huge deal, were it not for the fact that in the past month or so, a total of thirty sperm whales have washed up and died on the shores of the North Sea in the Netherlands, Germany and England. Experts believe that all of these whales have come from the same pod: an all-male bachelor pod.
Why should we care about this? I mean, with all the human problems happening in the world right now, why is it important to think about the conditions of whales and whale pods? It sounds awfully like a middle school “save the whales” campaign.
While on the surface, it may seem like this mass death happening within this pod is simply another tragedy, the fact that all of these whales have been beached actually represents an exciting trend in aquatic ecosystems.
Clustered whale deaths are not historically unprecedented. According to Al Jazeera, in the 1760s, whales swam up into the Thames River before dying. Incidents of this sort decreased in frequency as whale hunting increased in popularity.
So, these beachings represent a good thing: They may indicate a resurgence in the population of these sperm whales in their native environments. If this is the case, that’s pretty environmentally awesome. It would mean that all the protection measures instituted in the 80s to stop or slow whale hunting in the 70s actually worked.
What does this say about the quality of measures that were put into place and their enforcement? Possibly that we should replicate the measures in order to protect other endangered aquatic species that are in danger from overhunting and overfishing. If we start paying the same sort of attention to other aquatic animals that are or have been in danger of becoming extinct, we may be able to reverse the process, as seems to have been done in a few short decades with these sperm whales.
The other exciting thing about this is that having more whales in the ocean means that fish populations will be better protected and maintained. Studies show that having whales present in an ecosystem is associated with a greater incidence of fish. Whales also help to sustain healthy food chain dynamics in the spaces they inhabit. They may even help to buffer aquatic ecosystems from some of the debilitating and destructive effects of climate change.
Now, I’m not advocating that these whale deaths are a good thing; I am simply saying that they could indicate that there may be an underlying factor that has positive impacts. By having the phenomenon of beached whales return, we can infer that whale populations have once again become large enough such that this instance of massive numbers of beached whales can happen. We must certainly be cautiously optimistic, though, because the cause of death of these whales has not yet been identified.
The unfortunate news is that it’s just as likely due to global warming. Northern waters are warmer than they would have been twenty years ago, keeping the whales further north than they’ve ever been. As they’re in the North Sea, it becomes much easier to get sucked into shallow waters. Once this happens, it is nearly impossible for the whales to free themselves from those spaces. They end up beached and die quickly thereafter as a result of not being able to get back into the deep-water ecosystem that they need to survive.
Best case scenario, we have whale populations large enough to have this sort of phenomenon of regular beaching without the temperature fluctuation incentives to cause the beaching and death. How might we achieve this? Listen to climate change activists and invest in solving the predicament that we are in.
This radical problem we are facing in the environment that creates situations in which whales die by the dozens will take a radical set of solutions, unlike what was effectively the collective New Year’s Resolution that came out of the COP21 conference in Paris this past December. If we care about our whales and our ecosystems (aquatic or otherwise) more drastic policy moves are a necessity. Because, as cliché as it may sound, it really is in our best interest to save the whales!
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.