November 5, 2020

The cost of killing a whale

Malcolm Kennedy
Photo by Dick Martin on Unsplash
Photo by Dick Martin on Unsplash

Almost forty years after commercial whaling was halted, humans remain the leading cause of mortality for many whale populations, albeit by accidental means: one study in the northwest Atlantic over four decades found that two-thirds of all recorded whale deaths were human-caused. Both governments and companies have struggled to find reliable strategies for reducing accidental whale deaths due to ship strikes, fishing gear entanglement, and other human activities. Since avoiding whales often carries an economic cost, the question bears answering: what is the cost of killing one? Put differently, how much value do humans derive from whales, by letting them live?

Among the more tangible benefits, or “ecosystem services”, provided by whales is their surprisingly substantial potential for carbon sequestration. During their lifetime, whales store carbon in their bodies, mostly in the form of fat. When they die, whale carcasses, along with the carbon they store, sink to the bottom of the ocean. There they support deep-sea biodiversity by sustaining over 100 species of “whale-fall specialists”, who eat dead whales full-time.

Whales also impact carbon sequestration indirectly, by fertilizing microscopic marine organisms called phytoplankton, which absorb as much CO2 annually as all land plants combined. By diving between different depths, as well as migrating between the poles and the tropics each year, whales drive a global recirculation of nutrients, including iron and nitrogen, which are necessary for phytoplankton to grow, but scarce in areas where whales are missing. More whales means more whale-powered fertilization, more phytoplankton, and less CO2 in the atmosphere. Phytoplankton also form the foundation of the marine food web, and increase the biodiversity of marine ecosystems wherever they go.

So….how much is all this worth?

A report from researchers at the IMF estimated that the economic value of whale's carbon sequestration potential alone is estimated to be at least $1 trillion — not to mention that the sequestration power of whales could increase dramatically if whales returned to pre-whaling numbers; or the potential undervaluation of CO2 emissions. The report proposes an international financial mechanism for sustaining and re-growing global whale populations, along the lines of the existing UN program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which incentivizes countries to preserve their forests as a means of carbon sequestration. Given that the carbon sequestration power of a great whale is estimated to be over 1000 times that of a tree, re-growing global whale populations represents an achievable low-tech carbon sequestration strategy.

Whales provide a number of ecosystem services beyond their ecological and environmental benefits — but putting a dollar sign to these is complicated work. On the more easily quantifiable end of this spectrum is the whale watching industry, which generates $2 billion per year. Less straightforward are the cultural and sacred values attributed to whales in coastal communities around the world. For example, some Maori legends hold that whales helped their ancestors navigate to New Zealand from Hawaiki, the original home of Polynesian peoples. As a result, many Maori peoples view whales as guardians. Still more difficult to estimate are the so-called “non-use” values of whales: the value, for instance, of their mere existence, their beauty, or their continued existence for future generations.

How do these costs affect decision-makers? A growing consensus on the economic value of climate change mitigation and ecosystem revitalization is making the avoidance of whale mortalities an increasingly worthwhile investment, for governments and companies alike. Here in Canada, the political cost of human-caused whale mortalities was made clear in 2017, when a record number of ship strikes on the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale (NARW) made headlines across the country, pushing the federal government to find a solution. One public opinion poll from last year found that a majority of Atlantic Canadians were aware of the threats facing NARW, and that among those, nine in ten considered the issue to be critically important. In the private sphere, as well, the ongoing emergence of Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) considerations places increasing financial pressure on companies to make environmentally wise decisions.

So how much does it cost to kill a whale? The value of a single “great whale” (baleen or sperm whale) for its carbon sequestration alone is estimated at around $2 million. As for the public’s valuation of whales for their mere existence, one study estimated that citizens of Arctic nations would be prepared to pay a total of nearly $30 billion to protect existing beluga populations in Canadian waters. While these kinds of calculations are complicated, recent public outcry around whale mortalities, as well as pressure from investors, has made clear that the high cost of killing whales must be addressed by companies and governments, if they wish to remain prosperous in the future.

Whales are ecosystem engineers, hidden climate heroes and cultural icons of the deep sea. Whale Seeker recognizes the high costs, both to society and to business, of killing a whale, and the benefits to be gained by letting whales live. That’s why we’re committed to creating accessible solutions to avoiding whale mortalities, by developing effective automated whale detection tools — so that what’s cost-effective in the long-term can be cost-effective now.


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