Map of whale migration ‘highways’ could help save them

If you’re a Viking bard, the “Whale Road” is what you might call the sea. Turns out there’s some truth to this poetic twist. As this map shows, the different populations of whales around the world follow very specific routes on their annual migrations – although, on their scale, these are not so much whale routes as whale highways.

Where whales and humans meet

Released in February by the World Wildlife Fund, the map of whaling highways (also known as “blue corridors”) was compiled by tracking 845 migrating whales with satellites over 30 years around the world’s oceans. The map provides the first global overview of whale migrations, and therefore the first clear picture of whale highways around the world.

It shows where these giants of the seas feed, where they mate, give birth and nurse their young. It also indicates where these whale routes intersect with human activity, often posing serious dangers to their ancient ways. These hazards can be deadly to individual whales and are likely to be deadly to entire species.

That’s why, even after decades of protection from commercial whaling, six of the 13 species of great whales are now classified as vulnerable or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Worst off is the North Atlantic right whale, which has fewer than 340 individuals, its lowest point in 20 years.

Deadly Entanglements

Deadliest human threat? Fishing nets. Each year, approximately 300,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are caught there and die. According to one study, about 86% of right whales will become entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lifetime.

And in the past five years, 34 North Atlantic right whales have died from entanglement or the other common whale killer: collision with a ship. Add to that plastic pollution, habitat loss and climate change, and it’s clear whales need more than just being left alone to survive.

The main point of viewing these blue corridors – partly coastal, but mostly open ocean – is to show the limited use of protection by whales only where they congregate seasonally, if they face mortal dangers along the rest of their migration routes. They need complete protection along the entire length of their highways.

Knowing where whales roam can help us prevent them from hitting boats and getting tangled in fishing nets, among other man-made hazards. (Credit: World Wildlife Fund)

The map is part of a larger study called ‘Protecting the Blue Corridors’, which calls for whale conservation through international cooperation, which is particularly urgent as the United Nations is set to finalize the negotiations on a new treaty on the high seas this year. Among other things, WWF is advocating for a network of marine protected areas, safer fishing gear and software that would help ships avoid collisions with whales.

This map could become an essential tool to help whales survive and thrive. And it’s not just good for the whales themselves. There is growing evidence that whales help maintain ocean health and regulate the global climate. In terms of carbon sequestration, one whale is equivalent to thousands of trees: each large whale sequesters 33 tonnes of CO2 on average, removing this carbon from the atmosphere for centuries. A tree, meanwhile, only absorbs up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year.

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