Requirements for protected areas for whales

03 March, 2022

Whales, with their majestic appearance, enthrall most people, but human activity in the oceans makes it increasingly difficult for animals. Now the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is pulling the emergency brake, requiring special whale protection areas for the routes whales migrate along.

Greenhouse gas emissions in 2021
Photo: Johan Hallnäs/TT

“These blue corridors are absolutely crucial for the whales’ survival,” says whale expert Stina Nyström.

Whales are the planet’s largest mammals and they move thousands of miles annually through the world’s oceans. They migrate to warmer waters to mate and raise calves, and then move to colder climates to eat.

WWF has, with the help of 845 satellite tracks and data from 30 years of research, in collaboration with several universities and various research groups, compiled the largest survey to date of whale migration and the threats the animals face along the way during their ongoing journey.

The single biggest threat is bycatch – every year it is estimated that 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises drown after being caught in fishing gear. Shipping is also a problem in itself: on the one hand, ships collide with whales and, on the other hand, they create underwater noise that interferes with the animals’ ability to orient themselves.

– Whales are completely dependent on their communication through sound, when there is a lot of noise under the surface they do not hear. They lose contact with each other and it becomes more difficult for them to find food, says Stina Nyström, expert at the Sea and Water department at WWF Sweden.

Binds carbon

Climate change, with warmer waters as a result, also means that fish stocks move in a different way and end up in other areas – and then the whales follow suit to eat.

When it comes to the climate, whales play an important role. By being at the top of the food chain, the large animals balance fish stocks, smaller organisms and vegetation and are therefore considered to play a key role in ocean ecosystems.

The oceans account for more than half of the world’s oxygen production, and here whales contribute through the so-called “whale pump”. The animals usually forage in deeper water and then make their way up to the surface to release feces, which feeds phytoplankton, which in turn creates oxygen.

Whales also bind carbon dioxide. During its lifetime, a large animal can store as much carbon as thousands of trees – thus equivalent to a smaller batch of forest.

“If we get more whales, they can be a real resource in climate work,” Nyström says.

humpback whale
A humpback whale has become entangled in fishing gear. The bindings prevent the animal from moving the side fins freely. Photo: Tony Wu/WWF

UN meeting in March

Protecting national territorial waters, or having a smaller number of countries agree on protected areas, is one thing. But the great challenges lie in protecting the open seas, the areas that do not belong to any country. Particularly important, therefore, will be the UN negotiations in New York this March, regarding the protection of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

“What is important is that a holistic approach is taken, partly by working at the local level and partly at the regional level where more countries are joining forces to protect networks of marine areas.


Whales have been hunted for almost a thousand years, but modern whale hunting began in 1867. Although the 1986 Whaling Convention, which prohibits commercial hunting, provided breathing space for several species to recover, stocks are far from prosperous.

Among the large whales, the Northern Cape is the worst exposed. With an estimated population of only 336 individuals, the species is critically endangered. Statistically, 86 percent of all Northerners are at risk of getting caught in fishing gear at some point in their lifetime.

* Humpback whale: Today there are an estimated 85,000 animals, but the population before 1986 was down to 5,000 individuals.

* South Capes: Today there are an estimated 13,600 animals, however, local populations are endangered.

* Gray whale: Today there are a total of 27,000 animals. The species was close to extinction during the 1950s. Still, the gray whales of the Western Pacific are very threatened.

* North Privateers: Today there are 336 individuals, which is fewer than in 2010 when the number of animals amounted to 480. The species is critically endangered. In the eastern Atlantic, the Northern Capes are extinct.

* Blue whale: Today there are about 5,000-15,000 individuals. Historically before commercial whaling, the population was estimated at 200,000-300,000 animals.

Sources: World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), International Whaling Commission

Text: Tomas Lauffs/TT
Photo: Johan Hallnäs/TT, Tony Wu/WWF

Related articles

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has published this year's State of the Ocean Report, which describes...
Text: Lena Scherman
Photo: Tobias Dahlin, Johan Candert
Scroll to Top