An IMF economist and the conservationist go whale watching…

The tale of how a radical new view of the value of whales to planetary health was born aboard a boat.
Author: Charlotte Smith, writer on sustainability issues

The sun is just rising  on the Sea of Cortez in March 2018 as a whale research boat sets forth from Loreto, Mexico – a town situated on the east coast of the Baja peninsula. The small group of people on board are excited, hoping for sightings of the blue whale which is known to feed in these waters at this time of year, having migrated as far as 1500 nautical miles from their northern habitat. Among them are lifetime activist for whale conservation Michael Fischbach, and a man from the International Monetary Fund.

Ralph Chami is an Assistant Director at the IMF, an organization of 189 countries working to secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world. Mr. Chami has been at the forefront of this work in some of the world’s most fragile countries for 25 years. As a child growing up in Lebanon during the civil war, he did not plan on becoming a PhD economist. He would gaze across the sparkling Mediterranean from his strife torn country and dream of life as an oceanographer. Life sometimes has a strange way of returning a person to abandoned dreams from long ago.

Friends had invited him to join the whale trip with Michael, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the Blue Whale and many other great whale species. He was thrilled at the chance for a close encounter with one of the world’s great wonders, and to hear more about these species for whom he had a great passion. But he did not for a moment suspect that the voyage would end in what can only be described as an epiphany.

A conversation began as the boat made its way out to sea, about the impacts on the ocean on climate change, and about the ways in which the ocean, and the marine life it contains, are vital in helping to combat man-made global heating.

As the boat bobbed on the waves and the binoculars came out, Michael began to reel off staggering statistics on the estimated numbers of great whales still dying due to human activities in the ocean. Despite the international moratorium on commercial whaling introduced in the 1980s, populations of most of the great whales are still not recovering. The Blue Whale is estimated to have reduced in population by up to 99% since pre-whaling times, with right whales, humpbacks and sperm whales all suffering losses of between just under 70% and 99% in some ocean regions compared with pre-whaling estimates. The causes of death are many – entanglements, noise pollution, and plastics in the oceans. But strikes by giant cargo ships due to the explosion in container shipping in the past half century are now thought to be a major cause of whale mortality.

Then Ralph recalls Michael’s wife Heather asking him a simple but stark question. How much do you value your next breath? The explanation for this question was a revelation to the IMF economist.

As Michael explained, marine biologists have discovered that whales—especially the great whales—play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. When whales die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. In addition, scientists have established that whales have a “multiplier effect” of increasing phytoplankton production wherever they go. Marine biologists have learned that whales’ waste products contain exactly the minerals needed for the growth of phytoplankton. Whales bring minerals up to the ocean surface through their vertical movement, called the “whale pump,” and also through their migration across oceans, called the “whale conveyor belt.” Preliminary modeling and estimates indicate that this “fertilizing” activity of whales adds significantly to phytoplankton growth in the areas that whales frequent. Michael went on to explain that phytoplankton is responsible for approximately 50% of all oxygen produced—that is, every other breath we take. It is also responsible for the capture of about 40% of all CO2 produced.

Ralph Chami recalls that at that moment he knew what he had to do. Economists have for some time now been attempting to put a value on the functions of natural systems and the organisms within them, to encourage greater reflection of that value in economic modelling, particularly around the real ‘costs’ of action to mitigate climate change. It is known as valuing ecosystem services. No-o