Whale Watchers Scholarship 2018 Contest – 1st Place
January 9, 2019
It is with great pleasure that we announce the winner of our Whale Watchers Scholarship 2018 Contest: Cole Brookson from the University of Toronto. Here is his essay that granted him first place in our contest:
From responsible consuming, to reducing our carbon emissions and getting involved in the conservation initiatives; there is something for every one of us to do.
‘What practical changes can people make to ensure that Canadian Oceans are a safer place for whales?’
Canada is home to an astonishing array of biodiversity. As one of the largest countries in the world, we harbor a vast number of varied ecosystems, from temperate forests to snow-capped mountain ranges. Across this country there are uncountable numbers of organisms that call this land home. Our waterways as well are bursting with life. From freshwater streams and lakes to three of the world’s oceans, Canadian waters are some of the richest on the earth. Among the many iconic aquatic animals inhabiting coastal and inland waters, Canada is remarkably fortunate to be the home of 13 different whale species across the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans. These marine behemoths hold a special place in our heart – thousands of people every year travel great distances to see these creatures in their natural habitats. Whales also occupy a special place in the history of biodiversity conservation. Though many whale species were hunted nearly to extinction throughout the past two centuries, several, including the mighty blue whale, have rebounded from the brink to occupy stable populations across the globe again today. A large reason for this remarkable recovery is the involvement of concerned individuals who recognized the importance of whales, not only for ecological reasons, but the spiritual and cultural value that is placed on these organisms by Canadians and by humanity globally.
However, whales are far from in the clear. The turn of the 21st century brought about new and ever-changing threats to their long-term survival. While they have been the target of many conservation campaigns over the past 50 years, there are many issues which loom large surrounding their conservation. As long-lived, mobile, and hard-to-observe species, many of whom have global migration patterns that remain largely unknown, conserving whales is a difficult task, particularly because many of the major issues that threaten whale species in are global in nature. However, there are still many tools in the conservation toolbox that can be utilized in marine whale protection, particularly in Canadian waters. As citizens, we often feel that conservation is a task do be dealt with by policy makers in governments, and scientists in their ivory towers. This could not be further from the truth. As individuals who care about the natural world, and about making Canadian oceans safer for whales, there are a whole host of things that can be done on an individual level to help promote whale conservation nationally and internationally as well.
One of the most important ideas to keep in mind when beginning to outline a plan of action is that conservation action items should always be directed first and foremost by the threats faced by the target species. Whales face a wide variety of threats that are often context and species dependent. Still, there are a number of threats that affect all whales, and as concerned citizens, those issues might be a good place to start. Some of the biggest threats to whale populations in Canadian waters include ship strikes, entanglement from fishing gear and marine debris, overfishing of important food sources, and habitat degradation. There are very specific things that can be done to address all these issues and they can be broken up into three specific categories.
One of the most important and easiest things we can do as individuals to make Canadian waters safer for whales is to responsibly consume products that come from, end up in, or indirectly affect the ocean. We consume products that come from the ocean such as seafood all the time. We also consume products that end up in the ocean almost daily. Single-use plastic products like straws and plastic cutlery get into our oceans only too easily. In addition, many products must be shipped overseas, and these products have disproportionately large effects on ocean life including whales. Shipping traffic in whale habitat is a recipe for disaster. In fact, for a number of whale species including the iconic blue whale, ship strikes are one of the leading causes of human-caused mortality. To become more responsible consumers, we need to pay more attention to what we’re buying, how much of it we’re buying, and what we do with the waste from our consumption. Consuming less overall by limiting our purchases buy more efficiently is always incredibly beneficial. In addition, paying attention to the products or brands we’re buying can have huge implications as different brands and products will have varying levels of environmental sustainability practices. For example, responsibly sourced seafood is very important. Human over-exploitation of fish stocks that different whales rely on for food can be of serious consequence. Furthermore, improper fishing practices can result in huge amounts of fishing equipment being offloaded into the oceans which can entangle and kill whales. Once we’ve decided on what brands and products offer the most environmentally friendly options for us, we need to be very careful about what we do with our waste. Plastic pollution is one of the biggest problems facing ocean ecosystems right now. Unhealthy oceans will eventually affect every creature in that ecosystem, including whales. By reducing and properly disposing of our waste, we can help prevent plastic from entering ocean ecosystems and harming species at risk. Responsible consumption is a tough task – it takes time and effort to comb through all the products we consume regularly and decide whether or not we need to change our purchasing habits, but it can have big effects. Producers and industries work to fulfill consumer preference to best serve their own interests – if consumers demand environmentally responsible products, the market will deliver those products. We should strive to a) buy fewer products overall, b) buy products that are environmentally friendly, and c) monitor our waste and ensure that we’re reducing it where possible and disposing of it properly when we can’t.
Aside from direct human impacts, climate change is one of the leading threats to the safety of whales. Addressing our impact on whale conservation from a climate change perspective is a much less direct issue, but no less important. As oceans become warmer and more acidic, we know this can have both indirect and direct effects on whales. For example, prey items that whales rely on can become less abundant or change their migration patterns meaning that whales have trouble finding enough to eat. It is imperative for individuals to do what they can to reduce their personal carbon footprints. While this might also feel like a monumental task, when we break it down, it’s less scary. Individual-based carbon emissions are typically concentrated around diet and transportation. Reducing dietary items that are fossil-fuel intensive can have a huge effect on a personal carbon footprint. Items such as meat (particularly red meat) and dairy typically are the most fossil-fuel intensive products to produce, so reducing consumption of these items can yield big results. With regards to transportation, it is often hard to change our habits in this regard. Especially in a country like Canada, personal transportation by car is a major method getting of getting to work, going to see our friends and family, and moving from city to city. Despite that, reducing travel where possible by commuting via bike, public transit, or carpooling as well as ensuring that vehicles are well-maintained and as fuel efficient as possible can be very beneficial. Other ways that can reduce carbon footprints can also have positive impacts on our oceans, like buying locally made and sourced products, and reducing fossil fuel-intensive plastic products. When we all work to collectively reduce our fossil fuel consumption, we do a great service to our oceans as well to the beloved whales that live in them. Some small changes in our own personal lives really do make a difference in this regard.
While all the things already mentioned here are beneficial without a doubt, there is one thing above all else that can benefit whales and other marine species with regards to conservation: getting involved. The most important thing that we can do as individuals who care about whales and whale conservation is to get involved in the conversation. We are far more effective in making oceans a safer place for the whales we love when we are educated and active about the issues we find pressing. Researching the relevant threats, understanding how conservation measures are brought into action, and working towards solutions that benefit not only whales, but humans as well. When conservation wins, we all win. As an individual, you CAN get involved! While it’s all well and good to have other people tell you how you can make a difference, you’ll always do the most good when you become truly engaged. Being engaged means different things to different people – and everyone is unique in how they get engaged in the conservation conversation. However, there are some basic items that everyone who is interested can do to improve their literacy on the topics. First of all, do some research and find out more about the questions and concerns that are interesting and important to you. Are you passionate about human-whale interactions? How about habitat loss? Or commercial whaling? If any of these or other issues are of interest from you, the first step is finding out more about the problem. Once you feel a bit more knowledgeable, try engaging with others! Whether it be with your friends or family, other people interested in conservation, or anyone really, just start the conversation and get other people interested. Another excellent way of engaging is to petition your local lawmakers and elected officials on policy issues that affect whale conservation. Be a part of the conversation, lend your voice to national and international discussions that are of importance for whales in Canadian waters. The most important thing we can do as individuals who care about whale conservation and making their ocean homes safer places is getting involved! In whatever small way we each feel comfortable with, whether that be engaging our friends and family on conservation issues, getting involved in policy decisions, being a part of outreach initiatives to teach others about the things that THEY can do to make a difference – all of it matters! There is no single way to be a passionate citizen, it takes on many different forms. For those of us too busy to completely immerse ourselves, we should do what we can to support organizations and individuals who are working to make positive change. Be an ACTIVE supporter of the movements you care about, and together, with collective action, we can be a force for change for better when it comes to conserving whales in their natural habitat.
All in all, there are a number of things that we can do as individuals to help effect change when it comes to keeping whales safe in our oceans. From responsible consuming, to reducing our carbon emissions and getting involved in the conservation initiatives; there is something for every one of us to do. Whales are unique in their ability to capture our hearts and our imagination. We as Canadians should feel a great sense of pride in the fact that we get to share our coasts and oceans with these incredible creatures. But we also have a responsibility when it comes to keeping those habitats safe so that future generations can experience their beauty. In delivering on that responsibility, we as individuals need to understand what threats whales currently face in order to determine how best to help them. Once we understand how whales are threatened in Canadian oceans, we can begin to make changes in our own lives to better help protect these animals and secure a safe future for them in Canada’s oceans.