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Whales reported to be getting thinner and having fewer calves

Southern Right Whale, De Hoop Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area, Western Cape, South Africa. Picture: Peter Chadwick /WWF

Southern Right Whale, De Hoop Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area, Western Cape, South Africa. Picture: Peter Chadwick /WWF

Published Feb 28, 2022

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Cape Town - Research has shown that southern right whales which visit South African shores are being seriously threatened by climate change shifts such as warming oceans, consequent changes to ocean processes as well as their food supply in the Southern Ocean.

With these whales reported to be getting thinner and having fewer calves, the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWFSA) launched a partnership with the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Mammal Research Institute’s Whale Unit to ensure a better understanding of what was happening to the Southern Ocean that was causing this effect on the southern right whale.

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WWF environmental behaviour change manager and marine biologist Pabs Pillay said: “Whales are often called indicator species and when they decline in numbers, lose nutrition, don’t have babies or don’t calve, it is usually a sign that the marine ecosystem is unhealthy.”

This was where the Whale Unit came in.

Based in UP’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, the Whale Unit has been monitoring southern right whale populations since 1969 and their research was one of the longest continuous datasets for any marine mammal in the world.

Pillay said this partnership would enable the Whale Unit to continue collecting vital, long-term term data so that they could in turn look at what the impacts were and what was happening to these whale populations - was it climate change, pollution, food availability - and then work together to develop and implement interventions to improve these marine ecosystems.

Whale Unit research manager Els Vermeulen said: “Since commercial whaling stopped, the recovery of the southern right whale population was a great conservation success story.

“But now, the science is telling us that these marine mammals are coming under renewed pressure from a more modern problem likely linked to climate change.

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“Over the past decade, we have been finding that the whales are getting thinner, calving less often and leaving their breeding grounds earlier,” Vermeulen said.

Vermeulen said they needed to continue their ongoing research as it was now more important than ever to keep providing the information that promoted the protection and conservation of this iconic whale species.

WWFSA marine programme senior manager Craig Smith said understanding these changes in the ocean and in whales was critical to improve forecasting and build resilience for people’s livelihoods and marine ecosystems.

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He added that this meant the funding of a long-term southern right whale dataset was essential.

UP Natural and Agricultural Sciences dean Barend Erasmus said: “This is just the start and these are the main players in this area, but to really have the impact needed and respond to the scale of the challenge, we actually need much broader societal and industry support for these arrangements.”

Those interested in supporting research and conservation of southern right whales can symbolically adopt a whale on https://donate.wwf.org.za/adoption/adopt-a-whale

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