Plight of the stinky whale

At Last year’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission, a report by 200 leading marine biologists revealed flame retardants, livestock growth hormones, pesticides, herbicides, cleaning chemicals, discarded fishing nets and plastics were killing the world’s whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The annual State of the Cetacean Environment report compiled by the commission’s scientific committee listed an alarming range of newly emerging environmental threats, including acidification of oceans and loss of food sources caused by climate change.

A substantial section of the report was devoted to the impacts of seismic surveys and ship collisions on whale migration routes. It suggested the world’s oceans were becoming so noise-polluted by increased shipping traffic, naval military exercises and seabed gas exploration, whales could be experiencing difficulty using echo-location to navigate through a “fog of noise”.

But these concerns weren’t high on the agenda at last year’s meeting of government delegates to the IWC on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. Instead, the concluding meeting of the commission attended by government ministers, agency chiefs and departmental observers was dominated by political rhetoric, accusations of vote-buying, threats of boycotts and walkouts and time-wasting arguments over minor amendments to the meeting’s agenda.

Amid this theatrical furore, the news that high-levels of livestock growth hormones, such as oestrogen, were polluting coastal waters and causing “major reproductive dysfunction in marine species” failed to attract the attention it merited.

Last weekend, a symposium on marine mammal diseases will mark the start of the 59th annual meeting of the IWC in Anchorage, Alaska. The commission’s scientific committee met this week to craft its report before government delegates arrive for the commission’s final five-day meeting on May 27.

For whale biologists, one of the highlights of their 14-day meeting will be the first comprehensive scientific report on a worrying phenomenon known as “stinky whales”. It’s a problem that highlights the poor resources currently allocated to global whale research as well as how little is known about the earth’s largest creatures.

“Stinky whales” were first reported in 1998, by indigenous subsistence hunters on the Chukotka Peninsula of north-east Siberia. They had killed a number of gray whales (under an IWC permit granted to indigenous communities) that, when towed ashore and gutted, had an over-powering stench reminiscent of hospital-grade disinfectant.

The whales were too contaminated to eat. Their blubber, tongue and internal organs reeked so strongly of the chemical, throat-burning odour, even the hunters’ dogs wouldn’t go near the carcasses.

During the next two years, more than 500 dead gray whales washed up along the Pacific coast, from Mexico to the mouth of the Yukon River in Alaska. Many were females and birth-rates for the species plummeted, with an 83 per cent drop in whale calf numbers over five years, from 1400 in 1997 to less than 250 in 2001.

During discussions last year, the IWC’s scientific committee noted “no known cause has been found” for increasing numbers of stinky whales in the Bering Sea.

Only two brief reports have been published, and scientists differ over whether emaciated “stinkies” washed up on beaches could have died as a result of stranding in shallow waters or from toxic effects of chemical pollution.