SIR – It was hugely disappointing to read recently in your paper that some individuals at least think perhaps that a relatively small number of whales offshore West Cork are seen as a threat to fishermen’s livelihoods. While it is true that whales eat small fish such as sprat and sand eels which are forage fish for commercial species, the amount taken is irrelevant when their contribution is considered and I think the record needs to be set straight.
Whales have existed off the Irish coast in much larger numbers for millennia without any detrimental effect on fish stocks and in fact fish numbers would have been much higher in the past. Whales both take and contribute to the ecosystem in which they live.
Whale poo is rich in nitrogen and iron and contributes to the growth of phytoplankton both nearshore and in waters further offshore. Much of this phytoplankton falls to the seabed taking millions of tons of CO2 to the seabed each year where it is sequestered, unless disturbed by bottom trawling or other seabed activities. Additionally the phytoplankton will be eaten by zooplankton, that are eaten in turn by krill and sprat which support commercial fish species as well as whale populations.
It is true that fish species are in decline as have been whale populations, though some whale populations are recovering following the demise of whaling in most countries. The large decline in whale populations in the 20th century was mirrored by a large decline in fish populations and the common cause was man.
Last week, the World Wildlife Fund announced that, in the last 50 years, 68% of wildlife, including fish, has been wiped out. This is not the result of a few increasing whale populations (more species are likely to go extinct soon), but pressures by mankind.
To blame whales for a possible loss of livelihood is not really looking at the cause of the problem. Whales are an important part of the ocean ecosystem and without them we cannot expect healthy commercial fish populations or a fishing industry. An industry entirely dependent on the natural world seriously needs to understand how it works before it destroys itself.
I hope there will be a healthy fishing industry for generations to come, but it needs to look beyond the next catch. The fishing industry, nor anyone else, cannot seed the open ocean with iron as effectively as whales do and to replace this alone would cost a huge amount of money, and to date efforts to do this have been completely ineffective.
So there needs to be an appreciation for how whales support fish ecosystems. Loss of habitat, means loss of fish, we desperately need some fresh thinking from fishermen and conservationists to start to reverse the decline of recent years and to move politicians to action.
Humpback whales in Irish waters are relatively few; removing them from the picture would not make a blind bit of difference to the livelihood of fishermen, if indeed it were legally possible. Removing whales would in all probability increase the likelihood of the total collapse of fishing.
Predictions of the total collapse of fishing abound, the cause of this collapse is a combination of sea temperature change, ocean acidification and overfishing. Overfishing is not the fault of any individual fisherman but of the way the industry operates.
In the past the fishing industry was a local operation and it depended on working within the limits that local stocks could support. It is perhaps time to go back to this and start from here and to build solutions rather than casting blame on others, who are not the cause of the problem and therefore cannot solve it.
Ocean temperatures and acidification need global action to rectify, while whales can assist, they can only do so if allowed to thrive.
Chartered Marine Scientist and IWDG officer,