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Whaling Commission focuses on environmental threats

Humpback whale
The International Whaling Commission urges more research into how environmental problems such as pollution affect whales  

By Environmental News Network staff

(CNN) -- International Whaling Commission delegates voted Tuesday for increased research into environmental threats faced by whales. The move came during the group's 50th annual meeting in Muscat, Oman.

Under the resolution, proposed by the United States and approved by consensus, scientists and policymakers from the IWC's 40 member nations will review annual research on the impacts of environmental change on whales and other marine mammals.

The action directs commission scientists to place a higher priority on nonlethal research into environmental threats and urges them to collect and share this information with other scientific bodies.

"We cannot ignore changes in climate, pollution and habitat that are affecting the marine environment and threatening the health and sustainability of the world's whale stocks," said Dr. D. James Baker, U.S. commissioner to the IWC and undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

"While the commission annually reviews the conservation and protection of whale populations, we could do more to study the potential detrimental impacts that environmental change is having on the ocean habitat and the animals themselves. Appropriately during this International Year of the Ocean, this new commission focus on environmental change will help us move into the next century with a better understanding, so we can address adverse global changes affecting whale populations."

Coastal development
Intense coastal development may hurt whale populations  

"While we debate the limits that should be placed on whaling activities in order to protect the status of the stocks, a silent menace threatens to destroy the populations we strive to protect," Baker added.

According to IWC scientists, the world of the whales is in trouble. The past 10 years have seen more deaths among whales and other marine life. It is difficult to determine the causes of these events, but scientists believe the health of whale stocks is linked to major environmental threats posed by climate change, increases in chemical contaminants and habitat degradation.

Examples of such problems are:

Climate change

  • Scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have discovered links over the past 20 to 30 years between warming trends and decreasing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. These trends may be related to the polar amplification of warming predicted for the next several decades in response to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

  • According to the scientists, receding sea ice may alter the seasonal distribution of whales, their range, migratory patterns, reproductive success, prey availability, and ultimately the abundance and structure of the stocks.

  • Receding sea ice also endangers vital feeding grounds where krill are most abundant. Most scientists believe the loss of sea ice forces a reduction in krill populations. Krill are the main food of whalebone whales.

  • Average global temperatures will increase by 1.5 to 4 degrees Celsius during the next century. This rate of warming is greater than any seen in the last 10,000 years.

  • Increases in ultraviolet radiation passing through the ozone hole endangers ocean productivity by hampering early stages of the food chain in the Arctic and Antarctica, which are critically important feeding areas for many large and endangered whales.

Chemical contaminants

  • Industrial chemicals have made their way into almost every ecosystem in the world.

  • The increases in poisonous biotoxins and other environmental contaminants have been associated with reproductive impairment and immune system dysfunction in some marine mammal populations.

  • For instance, significant levels of toxic contaminants are found throughout U.S. coastal areas in sediments, shellfish and other marine animals. In fact, some marine mammals contain among the highest-known concentrations of organochlorine (PCBs) of any living forms. In addition, health authorities are concerned with human health aspects of the consumption of certain populations of cetaceans.

Habitat degradation

  • Oil spills, coastal development, shipping activities, toxic algal blooms, such as red tide or Pfiesteria, combine to destroy or change food sources, breeding habitat, and migration patterns of whales.

  • NOAA scientists have recently launched a project that identifies key coastal and marine ecosystem problems. The so-called "State of the Coast Report" has determined that every coastal state has either had fish kill or algal bloom incidents, or is vulnerable.

"We must determine the extent and causes of the stresses and pressures on our oceans so further damage can be avoided, areas already harmed can be restored, and wise long-term management practices can be put into place," Baker said.

Established to regulate the whaling industry and help conserve whale stocks, the 40-member IWC was recognized at the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development as the sole international body with the responsibility to manage whale stocks. The commission set a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

For more information, contact Gordon Helm, NOAA, (301)713-2370.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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