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Whale poop was a pillar of the marine ecosystem and its largely gone

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Blue whale having a shit

You didn’t realise, and neither did I, that whale excrement is so important to the oceans’ ecosystem. And of course, because humans have been mercilessly killing whales for the past century, the amounts of whale excrement have been reduced dramatically to the point where the marine ecosystem is badly damaged. The world’s oceans have become deserts according to Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government and who is part of an effort to find new ways of dealing with climate change.

Blue whale having a shit

Blue whale having a shit. Photo: Ian Weisse

Why is whale poop so important? A blue whale can produce several tonnes of excrement daily during its foraging season. For millions of years waste from this and other large marine wildlife was a pillar of the marine ecosystem.

It is rich in silicates, phosphates, nitrates and iron, important nutrient to marine life. These substances are required by microalgae. Microalgae capture carbon dioxide and photosynthesise it into food. The algae are then eaten by krill which are tiny crustaceans, together with other creatures.

And in turn, the whales eat the krill. This converts the protein in krill into blubber. The whales defecate more nutrient-rich waste which allows the cycle to repeat itself.

The 19th and 20th century whaling industry forced this virtuous cycle to collapse as krill, fish and whale populations plummeted.

And now humans are playing catch up to try and replicate what happened naturally for eons. As is typical of humankind, people push their abuses of nature to and beyond the limit and then play catch up to try and repair the damage but it is much harder at that point.

In this instance the experts are exploring as to whether they can produce artificial whale excrement to revitalise the oceans as reported in The Times newspaper in an article written by Rhys Blakely (Feb 26, 2022).

The scheme is being overseen by Sir David King, who I mention above. The first phase of their attempts to substitute well poop with something else is due to start in April off the coast of Goa, India. They are going to use nutrient-enriched rice husks. They hope that it will act as a fertiliser to make up for this dire shortfall of whale poop.

If the results are positive, they will commence a second phase in the Southern Ocean, which is a more important feeding ground for large whales.

“If we were successful, after 20 or 30 years we could stop doing it because the whales will maintain the nutrient pumping action”, said Sir David King.

It’s been estimated by Dr. Matthew Savoca of Stanford University that the blue and fin whale population fell by about a million between 1910 and 1970. This is equivalent in terms of biomass to about 3 billion humans. Try and get your mind around that information because I find it utterly shocking and depressing.

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