8 May 2019

CONSERVATION WORK SOARS TO HELP WHALES

Chris Johnson, WWF's Senior Manager, Antarctic Program has worked in 30 countries and across the high seas studying whales, their habitat and the threats they face. As part of an innovative new project, Chris shares how technology is being used to protect the Antarctic Peninsula and the wildlife that call it home.

What is WWF doing in the Antarctic Peninsula?

Chris: The WWF Antarctic conservation program works to safeguard a thriving wild Antarctica with a diversity of life for future generations. The Antarctic is really ground zero when it comes to climate change. Conservation science in Antarctica takes creative collaboration to happen. It’s remote, expensive and it influenced by polar weather. That’s why we’re working with amazing science teams led by David Johnston of Duke University and Ari Friedlaender of the University of California Santa Cruz along with One Ocean Expeditions to dive deep into what’s happening and what solutions and actions we can make to help protect this critical habitat for nature.

How is climate change impacting Antarctica?

Chris: Antarctica is a hot spot for climate change. Along the Antarctic Peninsula, we’re seeing 85 days less of sea ice each year since 1979. Sea ice is critical habitat for Antarctic krill, and krill is the key prey for many of the species that feed here including whales, penguins, seabirds, seals and fish. However, as ocean temperatures warm, krill is moving further away. The Antarctic Peninsula is also one of the fastest warming places on the planet. It’s warmed 2.8 degrees celsius over the past 50 years. This has impacted 87% of glaciers there and that's a real concern.

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What impact does this have on wildlife feeding in the Peninsula?

Chris: Humpback whales come to the Western Antarctic Peninsula every year to feed. They make an epic 8,500km journey from tropical waters in the eastern Pacific to forage and rest. Humpbacks eat an astounding 1-1.5 tonnes of krill, plankton and small fish per day to build energy stores to sustain them for the rest of the year.

However, warming ocean temperatures are causing krill to shift to higher latitudes and we are concerned how this will impact their abundance. In addition, there is intensifying competition between industrial-scale fishing vessels and the Peninsula’s iconic wildlife for the same species – Antarctic krill.

How is technology being used in the Antarctic Peninsula?

Chris: WWF are working with innovative partners using new technology to help us better understand how whales feed and where they feed. Imagery from the drones reveals information about the body condition of whales and gives us a really good picture of the ecology of whales - such as, if they are feeding enough during a season to last the year or if there have been lower numbers of krill which may impact their migration and breeding.

Drones are also helping us understand more about the distribution and terrestrial habitats of other krill dependent species such as seals and penguins, and how these animals share the same important resting and breeding habitats. Artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques allow us to count local populations using these aerial images. It’s game-changing tech.

Humpback whales in Antarctic Peninsula

How will this information help protect whales and their habitat?

Chris: This information is crucial for increased protection of the Western Antarctic Peninsula – a feeding hot spot for a range of wildlife. Antarctica is facing a variety of environmental challenges. Commercial krill fishing is overlapping the same time whales and penguins are feeding plus tourism on large ships will increase over the next five years. WWF is working to protect 30% of the waters around Antarctica by 2030, creating a safety net for wildlife. This Marine Protected Area (MPA) is crucial to protect key feeding habitats for whales and penguins. This will act as an insurance policy for nature for years to come.

What will happen if we don’t act now and protect these areas?

Chris: To protect Antarctica, we need to expedite the commitment governments have already made to create a network of Marine Protected Areas around the continent. It’s critical that we reduce additional stresses on the environment and protect these important places for nature. If you can’t protect nature in the last wild place on Earth, where can you protect it?

But we also have to take action at home. We need to reduce our carbon emissions. Every nation in the world has a goal to reduce carbon pollution, and most are making progress to meet their targets. But countries must commit to strengthening their climate goals before 2020. All parts of society are going to need to play a part, and individuals are a big piece of the solution, too. It’s going to take all of us to make a difference, to fight climate change and protect Antarctica.

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Help save our Antarctic marine life.