Whales have long been considered too rare to be the focus of overall marine ecological research, with more attention going to much smaller essential organisms like algae and plankton. However, as whales recover from centuries of overhunting that reduced their numbers by two-thirds or more, scientists are realizing the important role they play in transferring fertilizers like iron and nitrogen from deep waters to feed plankton near the surface via plumes of fecal matter.
A study at the University of Vermont, published in Frontiers in Ecology and theEnvironment, evaluates decades of research on the ecological role of great whales. Lead author Joe Roman says, “Whale recovery could lead to higher rates of productivity where whales aggregate to feed and give birth, supporting more robust fisheries.” It seems that the long-lived whales may even ease the impact of perturbations in climate and buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses.
Roman states, “This warrants a shift in view from whales being positively valued as exploitable goods or negatively valued because they compete with people for marine fish to one what recognizes that these animals play key roles in healthy marine ecosystems, providing services to human societies.”