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Saving Pilot Whales: Climate Change and Potential Solutions

March 4th, 2017 | Posted by Victoria Grant in Uncategorized

Victoria Grant and Mary Osborn

Saving Pilot Whales: Climate Change and Potential Solutions

Ocean ecosystem stability depends on all creatures involved to maintain the natural balance of the ecological pyramid. The food chain relies on predators and prey to keep each from overpopulating or going extinct. One species in particular, the pilot whale, is a type of predator that prey on squid and other fish in order to survive. Due to anthropogenic forcings, the prey populations have decreased which results in a food chain alteration affecting all the species within the marine ecosystem. The strain on prey populations pressures pilot whales, who feed on these species, into having to search for prey in other areas of the ocean increasing the instances of beaching. In addition, climate change is altering the marine ecosystems and the species which rely on them. This increases both temperatures and acidification of the water that these species rely on. Natural balances in place have been affected by the way humans are treating the planet. Organizations and conservationists are doing their best to try and save these whales and study the forces and reasons for the beaching and the reduction in their population.

Beaching of pilot whales is something that naturally happens as a result of time of year and geography of a landscape. Areas which have shallow waters and curved beaches are more likely to result in beaching of whales than a normal beaching areas which creates areas of “hotspots” where this is seen more often. Yet when pilot whales feel the need to move from one location to another due to lack of food, this can result in more beaching in areas these whales are not used to hunting in. Since these pilot whales rely on echo-location they cannot identify that they are swimming into shallow waters because when the sand is soft the echo does not send back in the same way (BBC News, What makes this New Zealand beach a whale graveyard?). Scientists have found that due to humans overfishing the prey of the pilot whale, many species of pilot whale have been forced to leave the area in which they normally hunt to find more food, resulting in increased instances of beaching. Not only have humans affected the prey species but also affect the natural cycles of the ocean.

Climate change has been found to contribute to stranding events in current years and the progression of increasing temperatures and changes in weather patterns will continue to worsen the severity of whale stranding. Climate change impacts the activity of marine life by raising the temperature of the water and increasing acidification. Oceans naturally absorb the carbon dioxide emitted but, with the excessive emission output by humans, oceans are absorbing higher carbon dioxide levels which increase acidification. Increased acidification negatively impacts marine ecosystems through the destruction of habitats, like coral reefs, and causing physiological stress. Organisms experience reduced growth and reproduction impacting the species in relation to them. Since climate change has accelerated in recent decades, scientists have detected significant genetic evidence of bottlenecks (Miralles et al 2016). Bottlenecks in particular lead towards extinction due to the loss of biodiversity within the populations of pilot whales. Therefore, climate change is indirectly affecting pilot whales and other ocean species.

Change in weather patterns and acidification have impacted pilot whales prey animal. Pilot whales’ main source of food relocating due to the changing ocean environment and coming further north towards countries like Tasmania. Their prey move into bay areas where the pilot whales get trapped when the tides change. Prey species are continuing to relocate and come into areas which provide higher beaching risks for pilot whales. The stranding events with pilot whales tend to be more severe than most cetacean species due to their strong social bonds. Pilot whales move in large pods and the members of the pod have strong social bonds to each other (Nolan 2003). Although one whale may be stranded, the rest of the pod will join the lone whale which could be several hundred whales. Predictions of more whale beachings have been made and show the events will get worse if no action is taken to correct the problem.

Climate change worsens with no immediate action and further impacts the pilot whale’s prey. More beachings will result in more deaths of the species which could change their endangered status. Whale deaths negatively impact tourism on the beaches they become stranded on. Whales have the tendency to explode after they die because their bodies are pent up with gases. People would have to cut open the whales after they die in each stranding event; taking away the beauty and appeal of a beach. The bodies of the dead whales have no place to go after death because, if returned to the ocean, they may end up on the private property of the beach residents. If the problem causing whale stranding is not corrected, whales will continue to get stranded and beach deaths will increase. Pilot whales are currently not in endangered species status but, scientists worry if the pattern continues, they may join the ranks of many other species toward extinction (Nolan 2003). With a declining food supply and population deaths increasing with each year, scientists’ worries are proving to be valid.

Solutions in which will help not only the pilot whale species but other marine species includes projects such as the Blue Carbon Initiative which mitigates climate change through the restoration and protection of the marine ecosystems that support the pilot whale and its prey species. This is supported by a majority of international organizations such as IUCN and IOC-UNESCO. Another project in effect is the Ocean Acidification international Reference User Group (OA-iRUG) which uses scientific information and conveys it to audiences of the general public. This focuses also on policy and decision makers which end up having the most power in regard to conserving marine ecosystems (IUCN, The Ocean and Climate Change). These projects which take into account the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems focuses on overall ecosystem stability which protects and supports marine organisms such as the pilot whale.

Climate change must be addressed to fully correct the problem. Pilot whales are going to continue to follow their prey if their prey relocates to areas with high stranding risks, the whales will continue to put them at risk. It was found that “the population of short-finned pilot whales that inhabited the coastal waters of California also abandoned the sector in search of its prey” which are squid (Go to Whales Online, Climate Change). Only one whale has to become stranded to cause a huge event to occur. Actions to combat large greenhouse gas emissions must be taken by federal governments but, ordinary people have the power to reduce their carbon footprint. By reducing fossil fuel use by driving less and lower the thermostat at home, one can begin lowering their carbon output and reduce their contribution to the problem. Voters can look for laws and voice their opinions on legislation pertaining to greenhouse emissions or government role in climate change programs. Becoming active in larger organizations is another way to contribute to the fight against climate change.

Works Cited:

“Climate Change.” Go to Whales Online. Whales Online, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2017. <http://baleinesendirect.org/en/whales-at-risk/threats/climate-change/>.

“THE OCEAN AND CLIMATE CHANGE.” (n.d.): n. pag. IUCN – International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Web. <https://www.iucn.org/sites/dev/files/import/downloads/oceans_and_cc_brochure_final_1011.pdf>.

Miralles, Laura, Marc Oremus, Mónica A. Silva, Serge Planes, and Eva Garcia-Vazquez. “Interspecific Hybridization in Pilot Whales and Asymmetric Genetic Introgression in Northern Globicephala Melas under the Scenario of Global Warming.” Plos One 11.8 (2016): n. pag. Web.

Nettleford, Jocelyn. “Whale Strandings No Surprise to Climatologists.” Australian Broadcasting Corporations. (2004). Web. <http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2004/s1255082.htm>.

Nolan, Tanya. “Mass Whale Beaching Mystery Solved.” ABC Local Radio. (2003). Web.<http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2003/s997632.htm>.

“What Makes This New Zealand Beach a Whale Graveyard?” BBC News. BBC, 13 Feb. 2017. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38953557>.

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