Our Future Whale Watchers Scholarship Contest – 3rd Place
February 20, 2018
We love helping raise awareness and giving back to the community, and this year we started our first ever Whale Watchers Scholarship! We understand that the pursuit of education and knowledge will lead to better solutions in the future, and want to help students to be able to afford the costs of attending post-secondary education.
We opened up the scholarship to students in the US and Canada who had a passion for the ocean and it’s wildlife, and who answered the following question:
WHAT PRACTICAL CHANGES CAN PEOPLE MAKE TO ENSURE THAT CANADIAN OCEANS ARE A SAFER PLACE FOR WHALES?
We were so thrilled to receive applicants from a vast variety of schools who answered our message, and while only one can ultimately win the scholarship, we are going to honor the top 3 applicants by sharing their essay with everyone on our blog. So without further ado, here is our first submission from our #3 applicant, Jordyn B, from the University Of Alberta, well done Jordyn!
“Individually, we are a drop but together we are an ocean”
Canada has the longest coastline in the world and its’ land mass touches three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Artic (Oceana Canada, 2017). This means that Canadians have a very important role in keeping the ocean healthy. One of the largest aquatic mammals is the killer whale (Nature Canada, 2017). Killer whales, also known as orcas, live in social groups and posses language and culture much like we do (Marine Science, 2006). They are extremely intelligent, social, and emotional animals that are unfortunately listed under endangered species by the Northeast Pacific Resident Population (Nature Canada, 2017). Orcas live in pods that are run by a maternal figure and members of the pods only interact with other orcas that the mother has interacted with and only follow the actions of this mother leader (Defenders of Wildlife, 2017). This means that if there is large environmental change, it is very difficult for the orcas to adapt to it (Defenders of Wildlife, 2017).
It is extremely important to keep environmental standards high and consistent in order to protect this species. Identifying key issues and understanding potential linkages between these issues are important first steps in mitigating human impacts to at risk aquatic organisms. If more people are educated about whales, they will understand the animal better and will be more likely to have compassion and care about looking after them; therefore, public animal education is extremely important.
A keystone species is a plant or animal that has a crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions such that if the species were removed there would be detrimental effects (Estes et al., 2016). A killer whale is a large keystone species in the ocean and has effects on every organism below it in the food chain (Estes et al., 2016). For example, if killer whales are unable to find enough of their preferred prey of seals and sea lions they will eat many sea otters (Estes et al., 2016). This will cause the population of otters to decline. Otters prey on sea urchins and the decrease in the number of otters causes an increase in sea urchins. Sea urchins feed on kelp, a large brown algae seaweed, that create habitats for many small aquatic organisms (Estes et al., 2016). The increase in sea urchins results in the loss of kelp forests. The loss of habitats for animals can be detrimental to their survival and this demonstrates how through the food chain, orcas can have large effects on many organisms and ecosystems.
We are a species that has introduced numerous foreign materials to our environment such as aluminum, concrete, synthetic fibers, and plastics. Out of these novel substances, plastic has been a major source of pollution in our ocean. Plastics are used in a variety of everyday items such as packaging, electronics, shopping bags, and can even be found in some beauty products such as face wash. We are producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic a year and half of this is used for single use products (Plastic Oceans, 2017). Unfortunately, these end up on the shorelines of our oceans and eventually in the water. This can lead to multiple negative impacts one of which is the death of marine animals such as whales.
There has been a great deal of research on how much plastic we use daily and the effects it has on our environment. A foundation called Lonely Whale launched a campaign this year called “#StopSucking” to create awareness around the use of plastic straws. Their comical and intriguing videos report that the United States uses over 500 million plastic straws in a day and that if there is nothing done about it now there will be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish by the year 2050. (Lonely Whale Foundation, 2017). The organization has created the hash tag #StopSucking which allows for widespread word about this topic on many social media platforms. This is important in order to continue to spread awareness about the use of plastic and the extreme negative effects it can have on our ocean. Many celebrities such as Amanda Seyfried and Ellen Pompeo have taken the pledge to “stop sucking” and have posted on social media about no longer using single-use plastic straws. Celebrities like these have a large following and many people who look up to them as role models. The power of social media platforms can be great when recruiting people to become a part of a movement and we too can become involved by spreading awareness.
A Canadian anti-straw organization was created in Tofino, British Columbia where the town began a campaign called “Straws Suck”. The intention was to have all local businesses ban plastic straws on Earth Day, April 22. One staff member at a bar in Tofino said that they were going through 10,000 straws a month and pointed out that there are millions of bars across Canada and even millions more around the globe (Vancouver Sun, 2016). These numbers are incredibly high and an easy way to stop the use of plastic straws is to either purchase a reusable metal one or boycott using straws all together.
Another organization fighting against plastics in our waters is 4Ocean. They are an organization that hosts volunteers to either clean up shorelines or dive into the ocean and collect plastic and other trash from the sea. They have already removed over 90, 000 pounds of trash from the ocean worldwide. (4Ocean, 2017) We can all make an impact by volunteering with programs in Canada such as 4Ocean or The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. It is extremely important to support these types of organizations so that they can continue their efforts in restoring ecosystems within the ocean back to equilibrium.
There are also many ways in which we can cut out the use of plastics in our daily lives in order to make the ocean a safer place for whales and for all other animals. For example, no longer using single-use straws, having a reusable water bottle rather than using a plastic one, or asking for no plastic bags at the grocery store. We can pack food in reusable containers instead of using plastic bags and throwaway container and buying our food such as pastas and cereals in bulk will cut down on the plastic packaging. We can also use sustainable household objects such as bamboo toothbrushes instead of the usual plastic ones.
It is no secret that climate change is occurring at a rapid pace and it can be seen quite obviously in recent events such as hurricane Harvey and Irma. Global warming has a large effect on the ocean, such that the greenhouse gas emissions from humans causes warming to the surface of the ocean (IPPC, 2013). Carbon dioxide is one of the six major greenhouse gasses (IPPC, 2013). It is released naturally in the carbon cycle but the concentration in our atmosphere has increased dramatically due to anthropogenic effects (IPPC, 2013). Carbon dioxide acts as a blanket over the atmosphere trapping heat inside and raising the Earth’s temperature (IPPC, 2013). This leads to a multitude of problems and one major issue is the death of coral reefs in the ocean (Graham et al., 2007).
Coral reefs are one of the most abundant and diverse habitats in the world and because they are dying, their abundance is dying with them (Graham et al., 2007). Many whales around the world use coral reefs as habitats due to their high density of prey (Defenders of Wildlife, 2017). The death of these coral reefs has a major impact on whales because of the disappearance of their prey and the decrease of food resources (Defenders of Wildlife, 2017). Our actions in Canada have affects on the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit and therefore we affect habitats for whales all over the world.
Corals are also massive sinks for carbon dioxide emissions because of their mutualistic relationship with dinoflagellate endosymbionts (Carnegie Science, 2017). The dinoflagellate provides the animal host with fixed carbon by removing it from the atmosphere and the coral gives off nutrients to its’ symbiont (Carnegie Science, 2017). Sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is important in our environment because of the rapid increase of carbon emissions. This process has been greatly reduced due to many coral reefs dying, affecting not only whales that live near coral but also whales and all other animals around the globe.
There are many simple ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint. For example, decreasing the amount of time that we are idling our cars for or finding other means of transportation such as taking the bus, carpooling, riding a bike, or walking. Also, eating locally produced and homegrown foods cuts down on the distance travelled and therefore fuel burned and gases released.
Carbon dioxide is usually the most commonly talked about greenhouse gas but it is not the only one that has negative effects. Methane is also another important gas that causes an increase in the temperature of the Earth (IPPC, 2013). One molecule of methane is equal to the same heat capacity as 21 carbon dioxide molecules and is more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon is (IPPC, 2013). The leading cause of methane accumulation is animal agriculture and furthermore, 10-12% of the annual amount of greenhouse gases emitted is from agriculture alone. (NOAA, 2017).
Cows are a large contributor to methane buildup because they release methane gas when digesting food, which produces 150 billion gallons of methane per day (Phillip, 2013) In order to decrease this number we can support organic farming practices. Organic farmers keep livestock longer instead of replacing old cows with calves. Calves do not produce milk and so are not of use until maturity but they still contribute to methane release. Keeping a cow into its later years means that the total number of cows will be fewer and this will lead to less methane in the atmosphere (NOAA, 2017).
Another way to help reduce methane is to eat less red meat. If we consume fewer cows, there will be fewer cows being raised for the meat industry and therefore less methane emission. We could also cut out all meat and dairy products from our diets, which would reduce both methane and carbon dioxide accumulation by decreasing the demand for transportation of products and the rearing of animals. Although this may not be practical for all people, it is important to understand that even our diet can have an effect on our environment. Both carbon and methane increase the temperature of the oceans making it difficult for whales to find sufficient food sources. A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide than someone who eats meat and will have less of an impact on the ocean’s resources. (Shrink That Footprint, 2013). By becoming aware of what we eat, we can be more conscious of the choices we make and it is through educating people about these issues that change will begin to happen.
Orcas rely heavily on the diversity of animals in the ocean as their source of food. They are predators and consume a variety of prey such as squid, octopuses, seals and fish. (Nature Canada, 2017) Unfortunately, the fishing industry continues to overfish annually and it has a large effect on top predators in food chains, such as killer whales. Overfishing is when populations of fish are exploited in high quantities and are reduced dramatically in number (FAO, 2016). This can result in reduced population sizes, resource depletion and decreased growth rates (FAO, 2016). Each year, there are 90-100 million fish pulled from our oceans (FAO, 2016). This industry has a major effect on the availability of food for whales. Orcas consume about 375 pounds per day, which means that they need to be able to live near a sufficient amount of prey and overfishing decreases this opportunity (Marine Bio, 2006). If orcas do not have enough food they will not be able to reproduce, they will die, and populations will decline.
Efforts have been made in Canada to stop overfishing and to discover a way to sustainably farm fish. For example, in 2003, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the number of cod in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland. They listed Atlantic cod as a special concern and a plan of recovery was carried out by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Cod was banned from being caught in Newfoundland and their studies show that their numbers are now slowly increasing (COSEWIC, 2016). Although Canada’s effort should be admired, it is also important to address international matters. Because fish are mobile in water, they are able to swim out past the borders that COSEWIC protects. These borders are not far off of Newfoundland waters and international fisheries continue to overfish in these areas. Therefore, this is still a large concern for Canadian waters and their species that are habitants.
The fishing industry also causes concern for whales because of noise pollution. The transportation used for fishing boats and shipping seafood across the ocean affects whales because they rely on sound in order to communicate efficiently (Keledjian et al., 2014). By using echolocation, they can communicate with one another across several hundred kilometers (Keledjian et al., 2014). Manmade noises from ships and other ocean traffic interfere with this communication and can also potentially cause harm to a whale’s hearing (Keledjian et al., 2014). Furthermore, fishing vessels have been estimated to kill as many as 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals annually (Keledjian et al., 2014).
The Canadian Government is beginning to show concern for the conservation of our whales but we can also make a difference too. Carefully choosing where we buy our seafood from can reduce the amount of unsustainable fishing and ultimately maintain whale populations. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a program that helps consumers and businesses choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that will protect sea life and habitats. They also raise public awareness about sustainable seafood issues (Seafood Watch, 2017). Ocean Wise is a Canadian program created by the Vancouver Aquarium. This program works directly with restaurants and food suppliers to ensure they are fishing in the most sustainable way possible. They place their logo on any food that has been sourced through their organization so that consumers can easily make an ocean-friendly choice when buying seafood (Ocean Wise, 2017). An easy way that we can help reduce the loss of orca’s prey is to search for this label when we are buying products at the grocery store or eating at restaurants. Also choosing to exclude seafood from our plates can decrease the need for fishing to begin with.
Orcas are a keystone species within the ocean and can have a large impact on all of the ecosystems within it. Conservation of the ocean is crucial to protect this species so that we may have many generations to come and to improve environmental standards for all other species. Canada and its occupants have a responsibility to become aware of our actions and the consequences, to care more about conservation, and to understand the importance of our oceans and the diversity of life in it. Through education, awareness, and action we will be able to address the environmental issues that impact our ocean and its’ whales. To create change we can we begin with small efforts and hold ourselves accountable, and together our collective actions have the power to create a sea of change.
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