Nova Scotia

The work of 1,000 trees: N.S. scientist highlights the toll if whales become extinct

Nova Scotia researcher Lindy Weilgart has joined hundreds of experts from around the world in a call for governments to better protect whales and dolphins before it's too late.

'This all should have happened yesterday. This is a very dire situation'

A North Atlantic right whale uses its baleen to feed at the water's surface. (New England Aquarium)

A Nova Scotia researcher has joined hundreds of experts from around the world in a call for governments to better protect whales and dolphins before it's too late.

Lindy Weilgart, a research associate with Dalhousie University, is one of more than 350 scientists and conservationists from 40 countries who have signed an open letter warning about the "real and imminent" extinction risk to various whale, porpoise and dolphin species. 

"This all should have happened yesterday," Weilgart told CBC's News Network on Sunday. "This is a very dire situation."

Weilgart pointed to the North Atlantic right whale, a subpopulation of the northern bottlenose whale off Sable Island, and killer whales off the West Coast, as some that are in dire straits.

Dalhousie University whale researcher Lindy Weilgart. (Dalhousie University)

The letter notes it is "almost inevitable" that the North Atlantic right whale, which is critically endangered with only a few hundred remaining in the world, and the vaquita of the Gulf of California will follow the baiji, or Chinese river dolphin, to extinction. 

It's estimated the vaquita's population may be as low as only 10, according to the letter.

Not only would it be horrible for these creatures to be lost for future generations, but Weilgart said whales are very important ecologically. 

Weilgart said whale feces add nutrients to the oceans, which support phytoplankton. 

Those little microscopic plants are like the grass of the oceans, Weilgart said, and take up 50 per cent of the carbon dioxide out of the air, which is a gas contributing to climate change. 

"Every second breath we take is because of the oceans and those little organisms," Weilgart said.

"This means that one whale does the work of about 1,000 trees indirectly in taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and preventing or reducing our climate disaster."

A southern resident orca breaches off the coast of Vancouver Island. (Twitter/DFO Pacific)

Although the threats to these animals vary by species, Weilgart said the North Atlantic right whales are suffering from entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes, while the belugas in the St. Lawrence River are facing increased toxins and underwater shipping noise.

Weilgart said underwater noise is a multiplier that adds to all the other threats, since if these animals can't hear their food, or use their biosonar to find it, they will starve.

The letter calls on governments to take immediate action to protect these species, Weilgart said, as well as being more active in forums like the International Whaling Commission and the Convention on Migratory Species. 

Weilgart said Transport Canada has been an international leader so far by bringing in rules like making vessels go slow within 1,000 metres of a Southern Resident killer whale off British Columbia, cutting down on noise and ship strikes.

For right whale protections, the federal government announced more measures this year including new fishing closures where whales are present in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, speed limits, and rope-free fishing gear trials in closed areas.

Whaling countries like Japan and Norway should be taking more action, Weilgart said, but added a lot of the issue is habitat loss worldwide.

A female sperm whale dives off the Galapagos Islands ( Mauricio Cantor/Whitehead Lab/Dalhousie University)

"We're all guilty of just buying too much. We just have to slow down our consumption. I mean, there's just no way around it," Weilgart said.

Even if countries become as efficient as possible, the more we keep taking from the environment something's going to give, she said.

Many of these species even have their own cultures that are every bit as important as humans, Weilgart said, especially the endangered sperm whale.

"These are extremely advanced culturally right up there with the African elephant. And it would be absolutely unconscionable if we were to lose them," she said.

In an email, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada spokesperson said the federal government understands the risks that many whales and other marine mammals face, and is taking "strong, consistent action to protect them."

While Canada is not currently a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the department said commercial whaling has effectively been banned in Canada since 1972. The department continues to work with the IWC by sharing information on Inuit subsistence harvests of Eastern Canada-West Greenland Bowhead whales in Canada.

Since 2017, the government has also been implementing "robust fisheries and shipping measures to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale."

Through such programs as the Zero Plastic Waste Initiative and the Ghost Gear Fund, the department said it is also taking action to rid our waters of waste that is harmful to marine mammals.

With files from Natasha Fatah, CBC News Network