- Issue: Fall 2019
- Author: Andy Isaacson
To stick an underwater camera onto a 40-ton whale is no easy feat. The maneuver demands the adroitness of a fencer and an eye for whale behavior. You creep up on the animal slowly, in a small rubber boat, always from behind, but never over its tail. The “whale cam” is the size of a remote control. It’s fitted with four suction cups and a radio tracker that allows for its retrieval when it pops off, about a day later. Once within striking distance, you deftly thrust the device onto the whale’s back using a long carbon-fiber pole, while at the same time angling the camera forward so it records the animal’s point of view. The whale registers all of this as a gentle pat. But execute it awkwardly or with hesitation, and you risk startling a giant: One single flick of that 13-foot fluke can send a boatload of scientists hurtling through the air.
Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist with the University of California, Santa Cruz, has mounted cameras on more than a hundred baleen whales over the past few years. They have captured never-before-seen footage of whales foraging off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula—a California-sized finger of mountains and glaciers that curves northward off the continent toward the tip of South America like an upside-down comma. Its placid bays and ice floes—a mostly monochrome world of black, white, gray, and glacial blue—are a marine wilderness, a haven for seals and seabirds like petrels and skuas, as well as six species of penguins. Home to more than 9,000 species, these waters are richer in animal life than the Galápagos Islands.
Each summer, migratory humpback, minke, and fin whales converge here to feast on swarms of krill, a dietary staple for the marine mammals and the keystone species of the Antarctic marine food web. There are some 380 million tons of these pinkie-sized, shrimplike crustaceans swirling around the Southern Ocean, a quantity similar to the total weight of human life on the planet.
Krill are essential to whales, and polar ice is essential to krill. Ice houses the algae on which krill feed and the microbes critical to sustaining them during their first winter. It also protects them from predators. But the ice now lasts for three months less than it did in 1979, when satellite records began. Years of heavy sea ice along the Antarctic Peninsula used to come around several times during the average five-to-six-year life span of a krill. Now they might never come at all.
With global temperatures rising rapidly, the vast storehouse of ice in Antarctica—enough to raise global sea levels roughly 200 feet—is at risk. Even East Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, is beginning to thaw.
But almost nowhere else on the planet is warming quite like the Antarctic Peninsula, a hot spot of environmental change. The waters surrounding the peninsula have warmed significantly over the past half century, and the air above its west coast has heated up by more than 5°F—about five times the global average. Massive ice shelves are collapsing; almost 90% of the western peninsula’s 674 glaciers have receded since the 1940s, and the encircling sea ice is rapidly diminishing. For some animals that depend on ice, the Antarctic Peninsula has become inhospitable.
In the short term, the warming trend may benefit some baleen whales, which are able to extend their feeding season by finding krill in areas that once froze over. But it also presents a great opportunity for factory ships, which trawl for the protein-rich crustaceans to feed the rising global demand for omega-3 health supplements and meal for farmed salmon.
The appetite of tourists is growing, too. Four years ago, 36,700 people visited the continent, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO); last year that number shot up to 56,200, nearly all traveling by sea to the Antarctic Peninsula. This coming season more than 80,000 are expected. The influx raises concerns about the risks to whales from ship strikes and underwater noise pollution, and about potential impacts on the peninsula’s fragile ecosystem.
To make the case to policy-makers about how best to protect Antarctic wildlife from all these pressures, better data is needed. So WWF is collaborating with Friedlaender, researchers from Duke University and the California Ocean Alliance, and others—and employing a suite of innovative research tools—to get a handle on how and where whales feed around the Antarctic Peninsula, and how this food web is being affected by climate change.
“We’re in a race against time,” says Chris Johnson, senior manager of WWF’s Antarctic Program, “to protect these waters before it’s too late.”
During the 20th century, baleen whales in the Southern Ocean were harpooned nearly to extinction. It’s estimated that industrial whalers hauled out more than 2 million blues, seis, fins, humpbacks, and other species, fashioning their blubber into lamp oil and soap, and their baleen—the bristles that filter krill and other food in the whale’s mouth—into skirt hoops and corset stays. Since the International Whaling Commission agreed to ban commercial whaling in 1982, most whale species have struggled to recover. The population of Antarctic blue whales, the world’s largest living animal, is less than 3% of its level three generations ago.
Humpbacks are an exception. “They’re doing incredibly well,” Friedlaender says. Their robust recovery—owing to rapid reproductive rates and ample food, among other factors—is viewed as one of this century’s greatest conservation success stories.
While protecting Antarctic feeding grounds is critical to the conservation of many Southern Hemisphere whales, these populations, as well as populations of whales across the globe, face increasing threats all along their extensive migratory paths. It is estimated that bycatch and entanglement in fishing gear kills over 300,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) annually. As whales traverse fishing grounds, they can become entangled in the gear, dragging it with them, often resulting in slow and agonizing deaths. Whales are also increasingly sharing their waters with ships, struggling with the resulting cacophony of underwater noise and direct collisions, or “ship strikes.” WWF recently launched the new Cetacean Initiative to address these pervasive threats at a global scale, to ensure our oceans can support the recovery of all the world’s whales.
While gray and humpback whales have recovered from the ravages of commercial whaling and represent some of our greatest conservation success stories on a global scale, there are populations that continue to struggle. The Western gray whales remain endangered, threatened in large part by oil and gas operations in their feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island, Russia. The endangered Arabian Sea humpback whale, the only nonmigratory humpback, is under pressure from increasing shipping and fishing: Between 30% and 40% of these individual whales identified off Oman have entanglement wounds and scars.
Southern Ocean humpbacks undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal. Recent satellite tracking has revealed that humpbacks that give birth or find mates along the west coast of equatorial South America make their way to the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula—a 5,000-mile journey. From around December to April, the whales track the krill, devouring more than a ton a day to fuel their traveling and breeding. Their migratory route across the Southeast Pacific is increasingly fraught, as the whales are at risk of collision with ships or can become entangled in the large-mesh gillnets and longlines used by artisanal fisheries.
Friedlaender has been studying humpbacks in the Antarctic for more than two decades. Until recently, very little was known about how these animals roamed around the peninsula to find and feed on krill. But now, armed with satellite tags, underwater cameras, echosounders, and drones operated by Duke University biologist David Johnston, Friedlaender’s team is able to map the distribution of krill along the peninsula and track individual whales as they pitch, dive, and roll for 24 hours at a time. Scientists can determine where whales feed, their rate of pregnancy, even the levels of toxicants in their blubber.
Synthesizing this information, Friedlaender is able to map the most critical feeding areas for humpback whales along the Antarctic Peninsula—the places and times of year they gain the most fat. As it happens, those spots with the highest density of krill directly overlap with the areas where commercial trawlers are known to prowl with their enormous mesh nets.
“That’s the ammunition we really need to be able to translate into legislation, so that we can manage that krill fishery effectively,” Friedlaender says.
Krill in the southern ocean are managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an intergovernmental body that came into being in 1982 as part of the Antarctic Treaty System and is made up of states with a research presence on the continent. CCAMLR sets the amount of krill commercial factory ships are allowed to harvest. Capping the amount of krill that humans take out of the ocean means leaving food for penguins, seals, and whales.
As fisheries elsewhere become depleted, there is growing pressure to expand fishing around the Antarctic. Thirty years ago, krill trawlers fanned around the continent. Due to precautionary management measures in other areas over the past couple of decades, they’ve focused in on the Antarctic Peninsula region. Last July, the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting companies—an industry organization representing 85% of the krill fishing industry in the Antarctic, established as a response to feedback from WWF—voluntarily committed to restrict fishing near important breeding penguin colonies along the Antarctic Peninsula.
That move is a good first step, says WWF’s Johnson, “but we need to go much further now.” He says that a comprehensive and effective network of marine protected areas (MPAs) ringing the Antarctic continent, including one that WWF is supporting for the Antarctic Peninsula, is the best solution to safeguard a range of krill predators, including whales. Such permanent no-fishing zones, or restricted areas, which may help build resilience to climate impacts, would lean on the information that Friedlaender and his colleagues have gathered. Norway’s Aker BioMarine, the largest krill-fishing company in the world, last year publicly supported the creation of marine sanctuaries in Antarctica.
But the future of krill and its predators depends on a host of unknowns. How krill populations will respond or adapt to a warmer and more acidic ocean is uncertain, and new research suggests that krill are beginning to move further south toward the colder shores of the continent. Friedlaender worries that a melting Antarctic poses an existential threat. “Given sea ice trends,” he explains, “there is no scenario in which there will be more krill in the peninsula.”
In 2002, CCAMLR countries pledged to create an innovative network of MPAs surrounding the continent by 2012. That commitment remains unmet. Currently, there are a little over 1.9 million square miles of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean. Over the next decade, says Johnson, we need to double that total. In 2016, after a decade-long negotiation, WWF helped put in place the planet’s largest marine reserve, nearly 600,000 square miles in the Ross Sea, west of the peninsula. WWF has set a global priority to protect 30% of all oceans by 2030, including the waters surrounding Antarctica, while also pushing for stricter and effective management of Antarctic krill and safeguarding important feeding areas for their predators.
Models of sustainable tourism are emerging, too. Collaborations between tour operators and scientists, like the one that Friedlaender has forged with the Canada-based company One Ocean Expeditions, turn tourist ships into platforms for polar research and enroll passengers in their work. The IAATO, in an effort to manage the spike in bucket-listers flocking to the planet’s largest wilderness, recently imposed mandatory measures to prevent whale strikes by ships in Antarctic waters, and made robust adjustments to visitor guidelines for land-based activities on the peninsula.
Still, the Antarctic is changing. The most important thing we can do is to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to avoid a future where that change becomes unmanageable. In the meantime, we need greater support for researchers like Ari Friedlaender and the team studying Antarctica’s whales, to help us understand the changes that are already upon us, so WWF can work with governments to deliver their committment to establish MPAs.
“Antarctica is the one place where we have put our differences aside for the good of nature and for our future,” says Johnson. “We can get it right, here. With all of the unknowns wildlife is facing with climate change, we need to provide nature the room it needs to thrive.”