The Importance of Whale Poop to Maintain Healthy Oceans

The importance of whale poop in the ocean is it helps support the growth of phytoplankton.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The importance of whale poop in the ocean is it helps support the growth of phytoplankton. Image: Unsplash

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The importance of whale poop to maintain healthy oceans

Here are some fun facts about whales that I bet you didn’t know. There are two main groups of whales: baleen whales (which include humpbacks and blue whales) and toothed whales (which include orcas, belugas and sperm whales). The difference? One has teeth, and the other has fibrous ‘baleen’ plates. Another fun fact is that the Antarctic blue whale is the largest animal on the planet, weighing up to 200 tons and reaching up to 30 metres in length. These big blue whales can consume about 3600 kg of krill daily.  

What I bet you didn’t know is how important whales and their poop are in sustaining marine life and minimizing the impacts of climate change. The ocean is full of whale poop which floats on the uppermost layer of the ocean’s water. Although whales will feed in deeper waters, they will poop when they swim up to the surface to breathe. Whale poop can help with the growth of phytoplankton, the tiny plants that are the foundation of the aquatic food web. Small fish and invertebrates will eat the plant-like organisms, and then the smaller animals are eaten by bigger ones.  

The phytoplankton not only contribute at least 50 percent of the world’s oxygen, but they do so by capturing more than 37 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide produced. When the phytoplankton die, the carbon they captured will sink into the deep ocean, where it won’t return to the surface for thousands of years. Unfortunately, with the rise in ocean temperatures, an increase in pollution and the rise of microplastics found in the ocean, phytoplankton levels are dropping in certain parts of the world.  

How do whales contribute to nutrient recycling, help to maintain healthy oceans and even increase phytoplankton levels? The process is called the “whale pump”. Whale’s poop contains nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and iron, which phytoplankton need to grow. Whales benefit the entire ocean ecosystem by creating conditions encouraging fish populations to grow.  

University of Alaska Southeast researchers are testing this relationship between whale poop and climate change. They are testing whale poop and comparing, in a lab, how well phytoplankton grows in different types of feces compared with plain seawater.  

To date, they have tested whale poop samples from humpbacks, harbour porpoises and grey whales and found that there was more growth in some conditions that contained whale poop. With climate change intensifying and the physical and chemical characteristics of the ocean changing, the whale pump may become even more important for bringing nutrients up from the deep.  

Unfortunately, many species of whales (including the blue whale, vaquitas, the grey whale, etc.) from around the world are at risk of disappearing. Some things impacting whale populations include ship strikes, bycatch (whales being trapped in fishing nets), habitat degradation and climate change. Conservation efforts, such as international agreements, marine protected areas, and efforts to reduce entanglement in fishing gear, are helping to protect and recover some whale species. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the impact animal poop can have on climate change. Elephant dung, which sometimes has seeds in it, is helping to grow trees and restore the forest’s role as climate sinks. Whale poop has a very similar impact. It not only helps feed the entire marine ecosystem but also significantly contributes to maintaining the ocean’s role as a carbon sink. Without whales pooping in our oceans, the health and balance of the ocean’s ecosystems will be compromised. We need the oceans, the whales, and the phytoplankton to help fight against the challenges of climate change.  

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