More than 250 cetacean experts from around the world have signed an open statement to global leaders calling for action to urgently address the precarious situation of many populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known as ‘cetaceans’), many of which face extinction threats due to harmful human activity such as incidental bycatch by fisheries, chemical and noise pollution, global warming and ship-strikes.

The scientists say that of the 90 living cetacean species, more than half now have a concerning conservation status. Without urgent action, they predict the Northern Atlantic right whale could vanish, along with the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in Mexico, which sits “poised on the knife edge of extinction”.

Signed by some of the world’s leading cetacean scientists from more than 40 countries, the statement warns: “The lack of concrete action to address threats adversely affecting cetaceans in our increasingly busy, polluted, over-exploited and human-dominated seas and major river systems, means that many populations, one after another, will likely be declared extinct within our lifetimes…

“Whales, dolphins and porpoises are seen and enjoyed all over the world, and are valued as sentient, intelligent, social and inspiring species; we should not deny future generations the opportunity to experience them. They are also sentinels of the health of our seas, oceans and, in some cases, major river systems. The role of cetaceans in maintaining productive aquatic ecosystems, which are key for our survival as well as theirs, is also becoming clearer.”

An alarming number of cetacean species are in peril, with 13 species listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered, 7 as Vulnerable and 7 as Near Threatened, whilst 24 species are Data Deficient and may also be imperilled. Additionally, there are 32 subspecies and other distinct cetacean populations which are presently either Endangered or Critically Endangered.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are adversely affected by many human-induced factors including chemical and noise pollution, loss of habitat and prey, climate change, ship-strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and incidental take in fishing operations.

The scientists call on countries with cetaceans in their waters to take precautionary action as soon as possible to protect species from human activities, including fully resourced monitoring to observe and address activities at sea. International bodies such as the International Whaling Commission and the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, must also be strengthened and supported by all nations, and regional fisheries bodies must urgently address fishing-related threats to cetaceans.

The Statement was coordinated by Mark Simmonds OBE, a visiting research fellow at the University of Bristol and the senior marine scientist with Humane Society International. Simmonds explains: “While a few whale populations are showing recovery – illustrating that good outcomes are possible when adverse pressures are adequately removed – many more are in decline and some are critically endangered. It is vital that we learn from past mistakes and don’t leave it too late to save some of the largest animals on earth. Let this be a historic moment when realising that whales are in danger sparks a powerful wave of action from everyone – regulators, scientists, politicians and the public – to save our oceans.”

Hermanus resident Dr Els Vermeulen of the University of Pretoria’s Whale Unit, who helped to coordinate the statement, adds: “This is a unique expression of concern from the professional community of scientists around the world who specialise in these animals. Relative to many other species, cetaceans are long-lived and slow-breeding, making them extremely vulnerable to disturbances that can lead to population impacts, such as noise and chemical pollution. For many the number one threat is being taken, intentionally or unintentionally, in fishing nets. We need measures to be urgently implemented to address all such threats.”

Professor Eduardo R. Secchi of the Marine Megafauna Ecology and Conservation Laboratory (Ecomega) of the Institute of Oceanography at the Federal University of Rio Grande-FURG in Brazil, comments: “I am very glad to see this worldwide engagement of scientists speaking out on this relevant and urgent matter. Despite comprehensive scientific knowledge in many cases, several populations and species of whales and dolphins continue declining and are, each day, a step closer to extinction. We need to act fast and in coordination to combat lack of political will.”

Dr Natacha Aguilar de Soto of the University of La Laguna adds: “We need to appreciate that whales and dolphins are key in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems and with it the health of the planet and our own security. The oceans are the first controller of climate change and the main source of protein for millions of people worldwide. Whales fertilise the oceans and thus raise the productivity of plankton, which consumes 40% of the carbon dioxide that humans release into the atmosphere, produces half of the oxygen that we breathe, and is the base of marine food webs. Saving the whales is not about idealism, it’s about saving our planet and ourselves.”

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