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TEDGlobal 2014

Asha de Vos: Why you should care about whale poo

Filmed:

Whales have a surprising and important job, says marine biologist Asha de Vos: these massive creatures are ecosystem engineers, keeping the oceans healthy and stable by ... well, by pooping, for a start. Learn from de Vos, a TED Fellow, about the undervalued work that whales do to help maintain the stability and health of our seas -- and our planet.

- Protector of whales
Dedicated to increasing awareness about Northern Indian Ocean blue whales, Asha de Vos is also committed to inspiring the next generation of marine biologists. Full bio

In the 1600s, there were so many
right whales in Cape Cod Bay
00:12
off the east coast of the U.S.
00:16
that apparently you could
walk across their backs
00:18
from one end of the bay to the other.
00:22
Today, they number in the hundreds,
and they're endangered.
00:25
Like them, many species of whales
saw their numbers drastically reduced
00:28
by 200 years of whaling,
00:33
where they were hunted and killed
for their whale meat, oil and whale bone.
00:36
We only have whales in our waters today
00:43
because of the Save the Whales
movement of the '70s.
00:45
It was instrumental in stopping
commercial whaling,
00:49
and was built on the idea that
if we couldn't save whales,
00:52
what could we save?
00:56
It was ultimately a test
of our political ability
00:58
to halt environmental destruction.
01:01
So in the early '80s, there was
a ban on commercial whaling
01:04
that came into force
as a result of this campaign.
01:08
Whales in our waters are still
low in numbers, however,
01:11
because they do face a range
of other human-induced threats.
01:14
Unfortunately, many people still think
that whale conservationists like myself
01:19
do what we do only because these creatures
are charismatic and beautiful.
01:27
This is actually a disservice,
01:33
because whales are ecosystem engineers.
01:36
They help maintain the stability
and health of the oceans,
01:40
and even provide services
to human society.
01:44
So let's talk about why
saving whales is critical
01:49
to the resiliency of the oceans.
01:53
It boils down to two main things:
01:56
whale poop and rotting carcasses.
02:01
As whales dive to the depths to feed
and come up to the surface to breathe,
02:04
they actually release these
enormous fecal plumes.
02:10
This whale pump, as it's called,
02:13
actually brings essential limiting
nutrients from the depths
02:15
to the surface waters where they
stimulate the growth of phytoplankton,
02:18
which forms the base
of all marine food chains.
02:22
So really, having more whales
in the oceans pooping
02:26
is really beneficial
to the entire ecosystem.
02:29
Whales are also known to undertake some
of the longest migrations of all mammals.
02:33
Gray whales off America
migrate 16,000 kilometers
02:38
between productive feeding areas and less
productive calving, or birthing, areas
02:44
and back every year.
02:50
As they do so, they transport fertilizer
in the form of their feces
02:53
from places that have it
to places that need it.
02:58
So clearly, whales are really
important in nutrient cycling,
03:02
both horizontally and vertically,
through the oceans.
03:06
But what's really cool is that they're
also really important after they're dead.
03:09
Whale carcasses are some of
the largest form of detritus
03:16
to fall from the ocean's surface,
and they're called whale fall.
03:20
As these carcasses sink,
03:25
they provide a feast
to some 400-odd species,
03:27
including the eel-shaped, slime-producing
hagfish.
03:30
So over the 200 years of whaling,
03:35
when we were busy killing and removing
these carcasses from the oceans,
03:37
we likely altered the rate and geographic
distribution of these whale falls
03:41
that would descend into deep oceans,
03:47
and as a result, probably led
to a number of extinctions
03:49
of species that were most specialized
03:53
and dependent on these carcasses
for their survival.
03:55
Whale carcasses are also known
to transport about 190,000 tons of carbon,
03:59
which is the equivalent of that produced
04:07
by 80,000 cars per year
04:10
from the atmosphere to the deep oceans,
04:13
and the deep oceans
are what we call "carbon sinks,"
04:16
because they trap and hold
excess carbon from the atmosphere,
04:19
and therefore help
to delay global warming.
04:23
Sometimes these carcasses
also wash up on beaches
04:27
and provide a meal to a number
of predatory species on land.
04:31
The 200 years of whaling
was clearly detrimental
04:36
and caused a reduction
in the populations of whales
04:40
between 60 to 90 percent.
04:43
Clearly, the Save the Whales movement
04:46
was instrumental in preventing
commercial whaling from going on,
04:48
but we need to revise this.
04:52
We need to address the more modern,
pressing problems that these whales face
04:55
in our waters today.
05:00
Amongst other things, we need to stop them
05:02
from getting plowed down by container
ships when they're in their feeding areas,
05:04
and stop them from getting
entangled in fishing nets
05:09
as they float around in the ocean.
05:11
We also need to learn to contextualize
our conservation messages,
05:14
so people really understand the true
ecosystem value of these creatures.
05:18
So, let's save the whales again,
05:25
but this time, let's not just
do it for their sake.
05:30
Let's also do it for ours.
05:34
Thank you.
05:36
(Applause)
05:39

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About the Speaker:

Asha de Vos - Protector of whales
Dedicated to increasing awareness about Northern Indian Ocean blue whales, Asha de Vos is also committed to inspiring the next generation of marine biologists.

Why you should listen
Asha de Vos is a marine biologist and TED Fellow who specializes in researching and working with marine mammals. She has degrees from the Universities of St. Andrews and Oxford, and her PhD from the University of Western Australia. She oversees the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, the first long-term study on blue whales within the northern Indian Ocean.

A Duke University Global Fellow in Marine Conservation, de Vos previously worked at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature while she has also consulted with the National Aquatic Research Agency. She was a panelist at the Rio+20 summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012.
More profile about the speaker
Asha de Vos | Speaker | TED.com