The primary goal of Pacific Whale Foundation’s (PWF) work is to address major threats facing the world’s whales and dolphins through Research, Education and Conservation programs that collectively tackle these challenges using a holistic approach — understand, educate and take action to mitigate. Identifying climate change as a real and imminent threat to the whales and dolphins of the world, the PWF team is determined to understand and address these impacts.
In the previous installments (part 1 and part 2) of this series, we highlighted the science behind climate change, how it is impacting our oceans, and steps being taken globally and nationally to combat this threat through policy action and other governing structures. Any holistic approach, however, requires action at every level, from corporations and nonprofit organizations to each individual reader of this series.
WHAT IS PWF DOING?
Pacific Whale Foundation has been conducting research on whales and dolphins since 1980 to better understand the threats they face. As time has advanced, so too have the challenges of maintaining a healthy ocean. Since PWF’s inception, we have been assessing the health and abundance of humpback whale populations in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres in response to post-whaling era impacts on large whale populations. Although whaling is no longer considered a major danger to these populations, our long-term studies on population characteristics of the humpback whale continue to identify man-made threats impacting their survival.
PWF researchers have teamed up with scientists here in Hawaiʻi, as well as Australia, Ecuador and Chile, to strengthen our understanding of the impacts a warming climate can have on the ocean and the whales that traverse it. In collaboration with the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Marine Mammal Laboratory and the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa Marine Mammal Research Program, Pacific Whale Foundation seeks to better understand the “cost” of migration on humpback whales.
Hawai‘i distinct population segment (DPS) of humpback whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any animal, traveling between cooler, more productive foraging grounds in the waters around Alaska, Russia and northern British Columbia to the warmer tropical breeding grounds in Hawai‘i.
As such, the whales require a healthy and reliable food source to cushion the journey. The goal of PWF researchers and partners is to learn about the physical and reproductive health of the Hawai‘i DPS of North Pacific humpback whales by measuring body condition, fertility levels and indicators of stress change while calves nurse and other whales fast over the course of a breeding season. By monitoring trends in the numbers of whales, their distribution, and health and population status, researchers can better predict and monitor the impacts of various stressors, such as climate change, on the whales.
Since humpback whales are a cosmopolitan species, examining whales in the Southern Hemisphere, whose feeding grounds are at the opposite pole, is crucial for this holistic approach to conservation research. PWF researchers have joined an international multidisciplinary team from Australia, South Africa and South America to address climate impacts to whale populations. The research project will establish a fundamental understanding of how changing ocean conditions are influencing the post-whaling recovery of humpback whale populations and will aim to develop adaptation scenarios for advancing whale conservation, policies and programs. The first step to tackling any threat to the health of the ocean is to understand it. This project aims to launch a full-scale understanding of the impacts of climate change on whales so that decision-makers can better implement strategies to lessen those impacts.
Beyond learning how a changing climate impacts whale populations, PWF is also working to protect biodiversity, which we now know is crucial for the ocean’s resilience to changing temperatures, chemistry and circulations. Our research in Ecuador, based out of Machalilla National Park, focuses primarily on the growth of ecotourism in the area and its potential impact on the region’s humpback whales.
However, as the Galapagos Islands, a biodiversity hotspot, sit roughly 600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast, advocating for the expansion of the existing marine reserve is relevant and crucial for the health of the ocean as it prepares for major climatic changes. PWF has signed on to support the expansion, which would more than triple the size of the marine protected area thereby maximizing protection of these delicate ecosystems.
On a global scale, biodiversity of marine mammals is being prioritized. The creation of a network of Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) is underway to highlight those areas of the ocean that merit place-based protection and monitoring. Moving forward, this atlas will work to support the identification of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) utilizing marine mammal health as indicators of priority protections.
In addition to public advocacy efforts, PWF’s conservation work includes advocacy efforts that target specific bills or policies designed to mitigate threats to whales and dolphins. In the previous installment of this series, we highlighted two major bills (Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act H.R. 8632 and Marine Mammal Climate Change Protection Act HR 8795) that, if passed, will integrate actions to help protect the ocean through the creation of marine protected areas, as well as ensure marine mammal abundance in the ocean. PWF uses its research to add weight to letters urging Congressional representatives to endorse these types of legislation, illustrating the importance of their implementation.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Combating climate change is going to be the biggest environmental challenge humanity will face. However insurmountable it may seem, we can take steps to aid in this fight. First and foremost, we can educate ourselves on this complex issue: What is it? What are the impacts? And to whom? Again, the only way to fight a threat is to first understand it.
Once you have a good grasp on the concept, there are myriad ways to get involved. Ultimately, we must decrease and eventually eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. One way to get engaged today is evaluate your personal carbon footprint. This refers to the carbon emissions released by each decision you make. Perhaps you have an option to carpool, bike or take public transportation; these alternatives reduce the emissions of your day-to-day travel. You can also begin to read the labels on your groceries and choose those that traveled the shortest distance to get into your hands. Similarly, buying produce not wrapped in plastic or buying from farmer’s markets reduces the emissions behind those choices while also supporting local communities. These are only a few examples of ways to shrink our carbon footprint.
Beyond raising awareness and acting on your everyday choices, you can get involved with the policies proposed to help mitigate climate change impacts. To some, this can seem like a daunting task, or even something to opt out of. But we must remember that one privilege of living within a democracy is that your voice has power, and as such, must be utilized. The Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act puts the health of the ocean at the forefront of climate change action, recognizing its invaluable role in keeping our planet habitable. The Marine Mammal Climate Change Protection Act amends the world-renowned Marine Mammal Protection Act to include protections for marine mammals whose populations will be threatened by climate change. These national efforts take strides toward creating a more resilient ocean in the face of a changing climate. Write to your state’s representatives to urge them to cosponsor bills that work for the health of marine mammals and the ocean. These bills are highlighted in this and other Making Waves series, and PWF will notify our supporters when opportunity arises.
Whether you are taking personal or political action, the opportunities to join this fight are endless. Share what you have learned with the people in your life, and together we can create solutions to this seemingly overwhelming task. Pacific Whale Foundation is committed to fighting the major stressors to whales and dolphins, and with your help, we can win.