Whales, Carbon Sinks, and Eco-Socialism

The “mainstream media” has gotten ahold of a bit of interesting research, and I wanted to give my own two cents on the subject. Basically, cetaceologists (and others, but I wanted to use that word) have added a little weight and some important framing to something we already knew – whales sequester carbon.

“Understanding the role of whales in the carbon cycle is a dynamic and emerging field that may benefit both marine conservation and climate-change strategies,” write the authors, led by Heidi Pearson, a biologist from the University of Alaska Southeast. “This will require interdisciplinary collaboration between marine ecologists, oceanographers, biogeochemists, carbon-cycle modelers, and economists.”

Whales can weigh up to 150 tons, live over 100 years, and be the size of large airplanes. Like all living things, their hefty biomass is composed largely of carbon and they make up one of the largest living carbon pools in the pelagic ocean, part of the marine system that is responsible for storing 22% of Earth’s total carbon.

“Their size and longevity allow whales to exert strong effects on the carbon cycle by storing carbon more effectively than small animals, ingesting extreme quantities of prey, and producing large volumes of waste products,” write the authors. “Considering that baleen whales have some of the longest migrations on the planet, they potentially influence nutrient dynamics and carbon cycling over ocean-basin scales.”

Whales consume up to 4% of their massive body weight in krill and photosynthetic plankton every day. For the blue whale, this equates to nearly 8,000 pounds. When they finish digesting their food, their excrement is rich in important nutrients that help these krill and plankton flourish, aiding in increased photosynthesis and carbon storage from the atmosphere.

A blue whale can live up to 90 years. When they die and their bodies fall to the seafloor, the carbon they contain is transferred to the deep sea as they decay. This supplements the biological carbon pump, where nutrients and chemicals are exchanged between the ocean and the atmosphere through complex biogeochemical pathways. Commercial hunting, the largest source of population decline, has decreased whale populations by 81%, with unknown effects on biological carbon pump.

It seems that “nature-based solutions” is a catchphrase that is very much in vogue right now, and I’m thrilled to see it. The authors of this study state right at the beginning – before the abstract – that we need to do something about climate change, and if we know what’s good for us, we’ll save the fucking whales.

  • As climate change accelerates, there is increasing interest in the ability of whales to trap carbon (i.e., whale carbon), yet it is currently undetermined if and how whale carbon should be used in climate-change mitigation strategies.
  • Restoring whale populations will enhance carbon storage in whale biomass and sequestration in the deep sea via whale falls, though the global impact will be relatively small.
  • Whale-stimulated primary productivity via nutrient provisioning may sequester substantially more carbon, though there is uncertainty regarding the carbon fate in these food webs.
  • Recovery of whale populations via reduction of anthropogenic impacts can aid in carbon dioxide removal but its inclusion in climate policy needs to be grounded in the best available science and considered in tandem with other strategies known to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Good note at the end there. Even a full recovery of whale populations, back to their numbers before commercial whaling began, would not “fix” the climate. It would be awesome, and it would certainly help, but it’s just one part of the system I always rant about changing.

Confession time – during a rather bleak period a couple years before I left the U.S., I more or less gave up on saving marine ecosystems. Honestly, I have up on pretty much everything for a bit. That coincided with a number of health problems, which may have influenced my mood, but a lot of it was from grim news about oceanic plankton levels, my recently-assuaged fears about the so-called “clathrate gun”, and a growing understanding of just how incredibly fucked up our political and economic systems were. Improvements to my health and to Raksha’s also helped my mood, I think, as did a change of employment.

More than that, however, I needed a shift in how I looked at things. I had had the “ecologist” perspective, and the “environmentalist” perspective, but I think I was lacking the “socialist” perspective to bring me to some form of eco-socialism. I couldn’t see hope for a better future, because all the paths to change that I knew about were blocked by the immense and utterly ruthless power of corporate interests. The solution, of course, is to forge a new path, by attacking that power itself. People talk about grassroots organizing, and while that’s basically what I advocate, I think tree roots might be a better metaphor here – we need to increase our own power by cracking apart the foundations of theirs.

All of this is to say that while I still feel the outlook is not currently good, there is a synergy between problem and solution that makes the way forward not only clear, but beneficial to humanity in the short term, if only we can convince people to abandon their understandable fear of big changes. Whales may or may not be the most charismatic of the charismatic megafauna, but they certainly fit the “mega” part of the description. Maybe a new “save the whales” campaign will tie into the same nostalgia-obsession that has a stranglehold on Hollywood and TV? I joked about charisma, but honestly, whales really are cool.

The more I think about them, the more fascinating they become. The obvious thing about them, of course, is their size. They’re just way, way too big, and unlike other organisms of comparable size (I’m thinking trees and some fungus), they move around a lotThis means that in addition to their role in ocean mixing (along with smaller critters), they also move large amounts of biological material around. Some of that was covered in the quotes above, but it seems that in addition to moving nutrients around vertically in the water column, the fact that they are so big means that they distribute nutrients all over the planet, simply by being nomadic and huge.

Fortunately, efforts to restore whale populations have actually had some success, and that in turn has had a real effect on the oceans:

“As humpbacks, gray whales, sperm whales and other cetaceans recover from centuries of overhunting, we are beginning to see that they also play an important role in the ocean,” Roman said. “Among their many ecological roles, whales recycle nutrients and enhance primary productivity in areas where they feed.” They do this by feeding at depth and releasing fecal plumes near the surface — which supports plankton growth — a remarkable process described as a “whale pump.” Whales also move nutrients thousands of miles from productive feeding areas at high latitudes to calving areas at lower latitudes.

That article, which also mentions the cetacean role in carbon sequestration, is from 2014, which triggers a couple thoughts. The first is that, as I said at the beginning, we’ve known for a while that whales play a part in natural carbon sequestration and natural carbon capture, but as with so many other things, it hasn’t been given much attention in media or in policy.

The second is that we actually have a pretty good idea about how to make life easier for whales. Recovery efforts have had huge successes just in my lifetime! This is yet another area in which we pretty much know what needs to be done, and to some degree it is actually being done in this case. I feel like I don’t get to say stuff like that very often. Even so, it’s not like whales are out of the woods. While they are, by themselves, foundational to oceanic ecosystems, they also depend on said ecosystems, and we’re messing with those in a variety of ways. As ever, what we’ve done is good, and we need to do more.

I mentioned the fears people tend to have about change, and the article I quoted just above actually addresses what may be both the most long-standing and the most culturally persuasive objection to the idea of a boom in global whale populations: What about the fishermen?

Sometimes, commercial fishermen have seen whales as competition. But this new paper summarizes a strong body of evidence that indicates the opposite can be true: whale recovery “could lead to higher rates of productivity in locations where whales aggregate to feed and give birth,” supporting more robust fisheries.

As whales recover, there may be increased whale predation on aquaculture stocks and increased competition — real or perceived — with some commercial fisheries. But the new paper notes “ a recent investigation of four coastal ecosystems has demonstrated the potential for large increases in whale abundance without major changes to existing food-web structures or substantial impacts on fishery production.”

I think a lot of people cling to the way we do things now, because of how well it’s done for us. For all of its problems, there’s a lot to like about life as it exists, especially if you live in richer nations. We have a fear of putting our weight on an unproven bridge, especially if it doesn’t look like the bridges we’ve crossed before. That combines with the modern love of incremental change (which seems to be uncomfortably similar to the slippery slope fallacy) to persuade people that the path forward is for people who care about this stuff to try their changes and see how they do “in the marketplace of ideas”. Somewhere along the way we seem to have developed a societal belief that we can make the world better without risk or discomfort, because of how well our current system supposedly works. We’re in the perfect vessel, and it’s on autopilot, so just go don’t rock the boat and everything will get better.

Part of the beauty of the path I want us to take is that while it will not be easy, safe, or free of problems, every step we take actually takes us in the right direction. We’ve been taught to view good things with suspicion. To quote The Dread Pirate Roberts, “life is pain, and anyone who says differently is selling something.” We hear it so often, in so many different ways, that it feels like it’s just… how things are. Everyone’s always trying to get one over on us, because that’s just how the world works, right? My twitter bio may say “utopian pragmatist”, but this isn’t a matter of even the most level-headed of utopianism. This more akin to understanding why an increase in greenhouse gases causes an increase in temperature.

When we take measures to reduce our impact on the ecosystems around us, we reliably get results that make life better for us. In some ways, this feels obvious, right? It’s like how maintaining good hygiene, diet, and exercise habits pretty reliably improves our health. There are real and important benefits to modern technology, social innovations, etc., that have made life better, and for many people possible. Most of the good stuff we can keep, and that does include a variety of “toxic” chemicals. What we need is to make a societal priority out of global ecosystem health in a way that includes us as a part of that global ecosystem.

Hence, eco-socialism, hence solarpunk, hence climate justice, hence the call to organize and build collective power.

The advances we’ve made have not come from “capitalism” or from our so-called leaders. They have come from the hard work of people, often fighting against capitalism and its leaders. That includes labor rights, civil rights, environmental protections, even safe living spaces – none of that was given to us. All of it was taken, by people working together to make life better for everyone. That’s the attitude I see in the rise in unionization and strikes in the United States. It’s the attitude I see in the Land Defenders of Atlanta, and the Water Protectors of Standing Rock. I would say it’s also an attitude that’s been long-standing among indigenous activists around the world, which is why it is so important to listen to them on things like ecosystem management, and to support the land back movement. It’s a matter of justice, but it’s also a matter of changing our relationship with the planet.

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