Whales in the carbon cycle: can recovery remove carbon dioxide?


The great whales (baleen and sperm whales), through their massive size and wide distribution, influence ecosystem and carbon dynamics. Whales directly store carbon in their biomass and contribute to carbon export through sinking carcasses. Whale excreta may stimulate phytoplankton growth and capture atmospheric CO2; such indirect pathways represent the greatest potential for whale-carbon sequestration but are poorly understood. We quantify the carbon values of whales while recognizing the numerous ecosystem, cultural, and moral motivations to protect them. We also propose a framework to quantify the economic value of whale carbon as populations change over time. Finally, we suggest research to address key unknowns (e.g., bioavailability of whale-derived nutrients to phytoplankton, species- and region-specific variability in whale carbon contributions).

Trends in Ecology and Evolution