On the Reasons to Be Cheerful website, there was an article written by Mitch Anderson titled “The Planet Saving Potential of Whale Poop.” The gist of the article is that whales have a great deal of value because they help sequester atmospheric carbon through their symbiotic relationship with the phytoplankton that are actually doing the sequestering. Does this natural process sound familiar?
This scientifically acknowledged symbiotic relationship between the whales and the phytoplankton has long been acknowledged, but the average person doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of whales and their connection with carbon sequestration and oxygen production. In fact, the article’s author suggests the connection is counter intuitive. But, an IMF (International Monetary Fund) economist, Ralph Chami and his team were able to calculate the value of a whale at $2 million- because of the ecosystem services they produce. Compare this number to the paltry value of $80,000 which is evidently what whales are going for these days. That lifetime value is over 20 times the value of the whale’s selling price.
These calculations have resulted in increased interest in whale conservation and the potential funding of projects that increase whale numbers and keep them in circulation doing their work that supports them, the phytoplankton, and the rest of the planet. Because whales accumulate carbon in their bodies, as all living things do, when they die and sink to the bottom of the ocean (if they aren’t harvested), they sequester 1,500 trees worth of carbon.
But, of course, their greater value is the mineral cycling work they perform during the course of their 60 years. Imagine the amount of minerals these 180 ton mammals bring to the surface of the ocean after they “graze” on krill further down in the ocean and then bring all those minerals to the surface in the form of their dung (“fecal plumes”), which feeds the phytoplankton (or microscopic algae). This is what is known in whale conservation circles as the “whale pump” and what we know as the mineral cycle. Moreover, those nutrients feed fish which is why whales also increase fish populations.
The phytoplankton are estimated to capture 40% of the world’s carbon emissions and produce 50% of our atmospheric oxygen, which is the equivalent of four Amazon rainforests. As the author notes, it is rather humbling to think that every second breath you draw is thanks to those algae. Of course, the other half is thanks to all the micro-organisms in the soil that are feeding the trees, grasses, and shrubs that provide the first breath you draw. So our survival depends on these photosynthetic miracles.
Based on Chami’s calculations with the value of carbon sequestration, increased fish populations, and eco-tourism interest, the total value of all the whales we currently have that makes whales provide $1 trillion of economic benefit.
The question then becomes what is the cost to increasing whale numbers to get more whales cycling minerals in the ocean and sequestering more carbon and increasing fish populations? Some whales, like the blue whale has only 3% of its historic numbers. While there is an international whaling moratorium, there are still over 1,000 whales killed by commercial hunting each year, taking these mineral cyclers out of the system. But even more troubling is the number of whales that are killed because of being struck by ships or getting tangled in fishing nets or plastic pollution. Certainly efforts to change shipping lanes or reducing single use plastic containers are as challenging a task as rebuilding our food systems so we can work to feed our regions rather than “feeding the world” through a commodity-focused food system that focuses predominantly on profit and less on the health and welfare of the animals and people involved.
Ultimately the value of saving whales so they can breed and produce more young would be increased phytoplankton populations. Estimates for a 1% increase in phytoplankton translates to adding two billion mature trees to the planet. Pre-whaling numbers of whales were around four to five million whales. We have a little over one million today.
Chami notes that to help make these shifts requires a “new mindset—an approach that recognizes and implements a holistic approach to our own survival.” Sound familiar? Chami also goes on to write: “Whales are not a human solution—these great creatures having inherent value of their own and the right to live—but this new mindset recognizes and values their integral place in a sustainable ocean and planet.”
So maybe we need to start talking about the “cow pump” or the “sheep pump” (or even the chicken pump) to attract interest in the work that livestock properly managed can achieve in their carbon sequestration efforts. Instead of talking about dung, talk about “fecal fertilizing.” Remember, you are “geoengineering” when you use livestock to improve the mineral cycle and sequester CO2 in your soil. How much carbon sequestering does that cow do over her life span? Does she provide $2 million worth of value from not only the carbon she sequesters, but the offspring she produces, and the increased forage production and improved wildlife habitat?
So, save the whales, cows, bison, goats, and ducks! Let them do their multi-faceted, multi-beneficial work. Ultimately, our work is to feed the algae and microbes that bring us breath, food, and fiber. Understanding that value is the first step. Recognizing our connection to this work, whether producer or consumer, is the next step. Engaging in that work through our decision making is the third step. Which step will you take today?
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