Hupmback Whale

Starving Humpback Whales: Are Our Ocean Fisheries Broken?

EcoBeat Staff – Dead humpback whales washing up on the shores of Washington State and Western Australia have become increasingly worrisome over the past five years, with seemingly no explanation in sight. Until now.

Observations of several carcasses in Western Australia showed that the whales appeared to be malnourished, lacking blubber and oil that are needed for their long migrations. Krill are the key source of sustenance for these massive mammals, yet even with their status as the most populous species on earth, these small shrimp-like organisms have seen a collapse in global populations since the 1970s. These two trends are leading some to theorize that the oceans may simply lack the population of krill to support global whale populations.


Antarctic Krill
Courtesy: Uwe Kils [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons

What’s happening?

Krill feed on algae beneath the Antarctic ice during the winter and spawn leading in to the summer. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, most krill fishing occurs off the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where the duration of winter is rapidly declining as the climate changes. Furthermore, demand for krill has increased in places like Australia, where it is included in omega-3 supplements, and in both China and the United States, where it is used as a protein additive for animal-feed. Shorter spawning seasons combined with increased human demand have pushed some to speculate that krill populations in global ocean fisheries have decreased by as much as 80% since 1970 (NOAA).

If food production continues to grow in its dependence on krill and progressive greenhouse gas emissions reductions plans fail to materialize, a collapse in krill fisheries could soon be in the horizon, with devastating implications for the entire ocean ecosystem, including the extinction of humpback whales.

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