The ‘startling’ reason whales could be worth $2 million each

Oct 22, 2019 by


humpback whale calf
© Tomas Kotouc

Economists with the IMF crunched the numbers to quantify the economic value of a whale’s life; what they found is astonishing.

The whales haven’t had the easiest time of it. For centuries we hunted them into near oblivion – by the end of the 1930s we were killing more than 50,000 of the gentle giants every year. Thankfully we have mostly stopped slaughtering them for resources, now we just hit them with ships, tangle them up in fishing nets, and overheat their home. The poor things.

With all of this in mind, whales have become one of the favorite poster children for animal rights and ocean conservation efforts. But what if there is more to the story than “giant marine mammals need protection because they are charming and majestic” – what if whales were playing a much larger role in the goings-on of the planet?

As it turns out, whales are doing far more for us than most people realize. Consider this, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF):

Whales absorb more carbon than rain forests and help produce half of the planet’s oxygen supply.

That’s right: Whales sequester carbon. While we have been obsessing over planting trees for their carbon sequestering talents, real live whales have been doing the good work all along.

And now, a team of economists led by Ralph Chami, assistant director of the IMF’s Institute for Capacity Development, has decided to crunch the numbers and see what the value of these benefits might be. The results were published in an article published in Finance & Development on the IMF website.

“Many proposed solutions to global warming, such as capturing carbon directly from the air and burying it deep in the earth, are complex, untested, and expensive,” begin the authors. “What if there were a low-tech solution to this problem that not only is effective and economical, but also has a successful funding model?”

They continue:

“The carbon capture potential of whales is truly startling. Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean; each great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. A tree, meanwhile, absorbs only up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year.”

Another way in which whales are benefitting the climate comes courtesy of a cycle called the “whale pump.” Whales bring nutrients from the depths to the surface when they come up to breathe and release their waste; whales’ waste is rich with the iron and nitrogen that phytoplankton need to grow, allowing the microscopic creatures to thrive when whales are around.

Phytoplankton “not only contribute at least 50 percent of all oxygen to our atmosphere, they do so by capturing about 37 billion metric tons of CO2, an estimated 40 percent of all CO2 produced,” write the authors. They note that this is equivalent to the amount of CO2 captured by 1.70 trillion trees – four Amazon forests’ worth. “More phytoplankton means more carbon capture.”

There are roughly 1.3 million whales left today, but if they got back to their pre-whaling numbers of 4 to 5 million, a significant increase in phytoplankton and their carbon capture would follow. They note:

At a minimum, even a 1 percent increase in phytoplankton productivity thanks to whale activity would capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees. Imagine the impact over the average lifespan of a whale, more than 60 years.

That whales are good for the environment is one thing, but how to get leaders and policymakers to invest in their health and safety is another. Which is why the economists decided to quantify the value as an alternative way of approaching the situation.

So they started with an estimate using the current value of carbon sequestered by a whale over its lifetime; then they added in other economic contributions, like fishery enhancement and ecotourism, over its lifetime. They

Our conservative estimates put the value of the average great whale, based on its various activities, at more than $2 million, and easily over $1 trillion for the current stock of great whales.

Since they are economists, they go further into the economics of the whole thing – of which you can read more about in the article. But the gist is this: The role of whales in fighting climate change is undeniable and we would be well served to be focusing on this. The authors go so far as to suggest that the protection and survival of whales be included in the objectives of the 190 countries that in 2015 signed the Paris Agreement.

And why not? Not only do whales have an inherent right to life, first and foremost, but they could help save us along the way. As the authors so simply yet profoundly put it, “Nature has had millions of years to perfect her whale-based carbon sink technology. All we need to do is let the whales live.”

Is that really too much to ask?

I recommend reading the whole article, Nature’s Solution to Climate Change, which you can find here.

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