Brooklyn Boro

A whale of a story

March 10, 2023 William A. Gralnick
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It wasn’t Captain Ahab, but do we know who or what it was? 

As reported in the Brooklyn Eagle, several dead whales were found along New Jersey the shore. That should awaken us to the threats that remain for these denizens of the deep. Ships are at the top of one list. A ship sliced into the “Behemoth of Brooklyn.” Between ships and whalers, these beasts of the seas are fighting for their existence. Some are losing. The top five most endangered whales are the Sperm, Sei, Fin, Blue, and Right. Also, off the coast of Victoria, Canada, dangers lurk for a pod of the magnificent entertainers in Sea Aquariums, the black and white Killer Whale. One pod is down to 70. 

According to research by the nonprofit Friends of the Sea, here’s another. Ship strikes kill more than 20,000 whales yearly. These strikes are alarming, especially considering how close to extinction some species (such as the North Atlantic Right Whale) already are.

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Politicians don’t help. Another non-profit, “In Defense of Animals,” pointed a finger at Maine. In 2022 a $1.7 billion spending bill allowed for a seven-year culling exemption for lobsters. Somebody needs new glasses up there. The exemption also applies to whales. This exemption could be the fatal dagger in the nearly extinct North Atlantic Right Whale. Look with me at the top five most endangered of these incredible creatures.

Sperm whales have the largest brain of any living animal, weighing up to 9.2 lbs. They have been sonar tracked in dives exceeding 1.4 mi. Analysis of stomach contents indicates that sperm whales are capable of diving beyond 1.9 miles. The longest recorded dive for a sperm whale was in excess of 2 hours.

Commercially hunted in the 18th and 19th centuries for its spermaceti oil, blubber (also for oil), and meat, it was a prize of the whalers.

The only recent quantitative analysis of sperm whale population trends suggests that a pre-whaling global population of about 1,100,000 has been reduced by 67% due to whaling activities.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 protects sperm whales in U.S. waters.

The Sei Whales are in the same family as the Blue Whale. Commercial whaling has greatly reduced their population. During the 19th and 20th centuries, Sei whales were targeted by commercial hunting and whaling, with an estimated 300,000 animals killed for their meat and oil. Commercial whaling ended for this species in 1980.

They are incredibly fast, reaching speeds of almost 38 mph.

The most significant threat to the Sei Whale is the population’s lack of recovery, which declined when commercial whaling was still legal in Canada.

Many factors could be indirectly affecting the Sei Whale population. These include habitat loss due to commercial fishing, noise and traffic from boats, and contamination from chemicals. Sei Whales are also at risk due to climate change, pollution, and being hit by ships. They can also become tangled in fishing nets and gear. Thanks to the researchers at Nature Canada for this information.

Wikipedia weighs in with this information. The Fin whale is a baleen whale with strainers in its mouth through which food is filtered. It is the second-longest species of baleen’s on earth after the Blue Whale. The largest reportedly grow to 89.6 ft long] with a maximum confirmed length of 85 ft. Maximum recorded weight of nearly 73 tons. American Naturalist xx Andrews Chapman called the fin whale “the greyhound of the sea … for its beautiful, slender body (is) built like a racing yacht. The animal can surpass the speed of the fastest ocean steamship.”  

Blue whales are the largest animals ever to have lived on planet earth. They feed almost exclusively on krill, straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates (which hang from the roof of the mouth and work like a sieve). Some of the biggest individuals may eat up to 6 tons of krill a day. Blue whales are found in all oceans except the Arctic Ocean.

The number of blue whales today is only a small fraction of what it was before modern commercial whaling significantly reduced their numbers during the early 1900s, but populations are increasing globally. The primary threats Blue Whales currently face are vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.

Blue whales were significantly depleted by commercial whaling activities worldwide. Today, blue whales are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Still, they could be threatened by something only a few millimeters in size—microplastics.

A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association study found that filter-feeding blue whales could be gulping up to 10 million pieces of microplastics daily. That’s a billion pieces of microplastics over a four-month feeding season. Even though they are tiny, these microplastics can dramatically impact wildlife—from digestion to development to reproduction—and the effects can be life-threatening.

Astounding as that may seem, look at what you bring home from the supermarket and the dry cleaners, for instance. What is the packing? Plastic! Look at what you throw out, or hopefully recycle, and check out the number of plastic containers you throw away. That will make it believable. 

William Gralnick. Photo courtesy of William Gralnick

The Right Whale got its name from whalers calling it the right whale to hunt. It is slow-moving, and when killed, it floats. It is a critically endangered species that lives off the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada. Adult Right Whales are generally between 45ft in length and weigh up to 70 tons. When feeding, these whales swim slowly and use baleen to eat schools of small, shrimp-like crustaceans called zooplankton.

The whaling industry is no longer a threat to these animals. They have been a protected species since 1972. Yet, their population continues to decline. As of 2018, researchers estimate that only about 400 North Atlantic Right Whales remain, and fewer than 100 breeding females. Birth rates have also slowed dramatically in recent years.

National Geographic says the main dangers these whales face are being hit by vessels and entangled in fishing gear. Human-made ocean noise may also interfere with normal Right Whale behavior, which can affect communication.

I hope you’re intrigued, but the facts raise questions.

A good question is this. Why is recovery so difficult? I’ve filtered through a lot of material and given you some answers. I’ve left one for last to make a lasting impression. Large whales mature slowly at ten or more years. Most of them have one calf every 6-7 years. If they get to live out their lives of some 70-odd years, they produce only about ten babies through their lifespan. That’s why.

The next good question is what are you going to do about this, so your children and grandchildren can have the opportunity to see some of the most glorious of God’s creatures in the earth’s waters?” You’ll have to answer that one yourselves.

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