Earthjustice’s Barefoot offers look on climate change and its effects on whales

Natalie Barefoot - Senior Attorney with Earthjustice and Executive Director of Cet Law, spoke to the Picton Rotary Club about the affects of climate change on whales at the Prince Edward Yacht Club in Picton last week. (Desirée Decoste/Gazette staff)




Cetaceans and climate change was the topic d’jour at the weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Picton at Prince Edward Yacht Club May 2.

Members and guests heard from Natalie Barefoot from Earthjustice and Cet Law.  Earthjustice was founded in 1971 and has saved irreplaceable wild lands, cleaned the air we breathe and helped promote the rise of 100 per cent clean energy. Cetacean is the family name for marine mammals such as whales, dolphins or porpoises.

“There are over 90 types whales, dolphins and porpoises in the world and they’re categorized into baleen whales and tooth whales,” Barefoot explained to Rotary. “Baleen whales are the larger species and include the Blue whale while the toothed whales include sperm whale orcas.”

Barefoot said even though scientists  have determined the planet is on the brink of losing some whale species, marine biologists and oceanographers are still discovering new species.

“The most recent species that was discovered is something called the Rice’s whale,” stated Barefoot. “Searchers thought they had a fin whale but later determined it’s a separate species First identified two years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, there are about 50 rice’s whales in existence right now.”

A pod of wild orcas. (Natalie Barefoot/Twitter photo)

Barefoot is based in the U.S. and works on international ocean issues.

“I try and improve the way the U.S. engages internationally and then I also work in different countries around the world- South Africa, the Bahamas and Australia are some of the places I work in and have worked in, trying to support partners on the ground there as they try to increase their protections of their oceans,” Barefoot said. “Mainly that work falls into two categories: One is offshore oil and gas so dealing with the climate change and the actual marine impacts that it brings to our oceans. And second is biodiversity and trying to save and protect the biodiversity we have in our oceans.”

As stated on the Cet Law website, the group is an international not-for-profit organization founded by Barefoot in 2015.

Cet Law work in partnership with global non-profit businesses, government agencies, and universities. By bridging gaps between knowledge and policy, they translate sound science and introduce best practices into legal solutions to protect cetaceans and their habitats for present and future generations.

“The volunteer work I do for Cet Law, a group I founded in 2015,  really focuses on issues that are dealing specific to whales, dolphins and porpoises and our oceans. There are three attorneys. One is based in the UK and another that is Columbian trained and we all work together and try and support other not-for-profits or scientists out in the field who are trying to increase protections. They may not have access to legal help and could use it to define their strategies or help them with the work they’re trying to accomplish.”

Barefoot expressed to the club how she loves the law and loves books and writing but she also loves getting out in the field.

“A lot of my work has been just getting out there and getting into the field and trying to understand what the problems are on the ground.”

Discovering how are whales are being affected by climate change is a key research question.

“Climate change which is causing the oceans to warm around the world,” said Barefoot. “We’re seeing this trend ramp even faster than once expected so some of the things happening to cetaceans in warmer water is they  change their ideal habitat and optimal range. So just looking at optimal range of cetaceans, actually 58 per cent of cetaceans will have an increase in range because of temperatures going into the poles. Will they have the same food and species when they change their range? Thats a different question.”

Barefoot told of a pacific grey whale named Wally found in the Atlantic Ocean, where grey whales went extinct in the 1700’s.

“When Wally showed in the Atlantic Ocean, scientists and people were trying to follow him and look at him and try and understand what was going on,” Barefoot stated. “And what happened is, Wally was able to go across the Arctic and get to the Atlantic Ocean because of the increasing ice melts and the ability to have a pathway. This was a really unusual thing to see him over in the Atlantic Ocean.

The two year old grey whale eventually became lost in the Mediterranean and is beleived to have died there in 2021.

“They didn’t see his body but he kept on getting emaciated and more emaciated and then the scientists could no longer find him, and we’re looking for him. So it was understood that he passed away due to malnutrition, and again this is because he is in a different habitat, so he’s not able to feed on the same things that he was feeding on naturally in the Pacific Ocean,” Barefoot said.

Grey whales are benthic feeders, which they feed off the bottom of the ocean and need specific things and Wally probably couldn’t find his ideal food source.

“These are things we might be seeing more and more, a grey whale that typically wasn’t in this part of the world, being able to actually go between oceans and not being able to function,” said Barefoot. “There may be cases where they learn to adapt in a different part of the world, we don’t know. These are some of the things that climate change is causing and we’re going to see more and more of.”

Another effect of climate change is food sources.

“Cetaceans are going to have issues with an abundance of food, not just because of food being able to reproduce but also overfishing that humans are doing as well,” said Barefoot.

Prey distribution is also a factor due  as their prey may move as Cetaceans move.

Cetaceans are more picky eaters then we think. For example, orcas in different parts of the world are very specific about what they eat. There is a New Zealand orca that specifically eats rays, there are some orca that eat fish, there are some that eat mammals and they’re very particular about their diet and they’re not as quick to shift as we humans kind of imposed on them before,” she said. “So that may be a problem. If a food source moves away, the whales may move with it or they may have issues or they may be able to find another food source or they may just become malnutritioned.”

Another change they are seeing is in whale migration patterns.

“A lot of the whales, not all of the whales, but many whales migrate,” said Barefoot. “They spent the summer months toward the poles, and then migrate towards the equator in the winter months. The timing of migrations because of climate change may shift and we’re already seeing shifts beginning. For example, there is a population of bowhead whales that typically migrate to the Bering Seas during the winters chose to stay and we’re seeing that as well with humpback whales too. Whales that would typically migrate are staying in place and becoming residents there. And we’re still trying to understand what types are doing it. Is it the same whales staying in place? Or is it maybe perhaps a whale that didn’t have enough food, didn’t eat enough that winter and didn’t feel like it could make the migration there and back. Typically when whales migrate, they’ll feed and then they’ll migrate to breed and calf and they don’t feed during that time period. So it’s very important when they’re at their feeding grounds they’re able to eat significant amounts and get fat and healthy.”

Another thing climate change is affecting cetaceans is increased human activity.

“Humans also contribute to the movement and mortality of whales, and climate change is expected to exacerbate that as our activities change on the water with what we’re doing,” Barefoot added.

One of the biggest issues facing whales is entanglements while another issue is ship strikes.

“For example, blue whales are facing extinction because of those two factors,” said Barefoot. “Ship strikes and entanglements are the biggest causes and may cause them to go extinct, so humans do play a role in this and our increased fishing activity, our increased shipping activity is part of the cause for this.”

Pollution can’t be discounted either. Barefoot said dead whales washing up on shore have had to be treated as toxic waste because of high levels of toxicity.

Deceased orcas washed up on shore near Tuatapere, New Zealand. (Natalie Barefoot/Twitter photo)

“We see time and time again animals coming up, sperm whales coming up with fishing nets, car plastic in their tummies. So we are putting things into the ocean and animals are ingesting it and that’s causing issues with the animals,” she said.

One of the big issues Barefoot works on is noise pollution as the ocean is an acoustic world.

“Sound travels farther and faster in water then it does in air, and most animals because you can’t see very far, even animals can’t use visual very far, use sound, use vibration to communicate, to feed, to forage, for mating, use it to figure where they’re going to settle in the reef,” said Barefoot. “We are finding out all this amazing information about vibration and sound in the water, and we’re also increasing our activities in the water which is harming and interfering and masking communication between animals.”

While whales and marine life are at the forefront of the war on climate change, studying its effects on Cetaceans could provide the science needed to win that battle.

“Climate change is affecting whales and we are changing behaviours and patterns with how climate change is impacting the day-to-day lives, whales have an impact on climate change and they’re able to help us in the fight to combat climate change,” Barefoot stated. “Over the life span of a whale, a whale will actually absorb more carbon than it will emit. That is not like you and I, we are carbon emitters. Scientists are studying this all over the world and it’s called whale carbon. So they’re looking at the biological processes of whales that can help track carbon dioxide from the air and reduce the effects of climate change. So they’re looking at how they engineer the ecosystems.”

What has that research found?  Whales are ecosystem engineers and carbon traps in two ways. First, they increase the nutrient availability in the ocean and then second, they sequester carbon in their bodies.

“First of all, they increase nutrient availability in a couple of ways, first, just merely by mixing nutrients by the act of swimming when they dive down their flip movement mixes the nutrients and brings those nutrients that might have been falling down to the ocean floor back up to the surface. At the surface these nutrients feed phytoplankton. Phytoplankton photosynthesizes and through the photosynthesis removes carbon from the air,” she expalaind. “Every third breath you take is from the ocean because the ocean is an incredible mechanism through phytoplankton and photosynthesis to take carbon out of our air and to put it back into oxygen.”

Lastly, the second way that the whale helps reduce carbon in the atmosphere is through carbon sequestration in their bodies.

“Whales are big and long lived. bowhead whales can live up to 200 years for example, and when they die their bodies become carbon sinks,” said Barefoot. “This means they sink to the bottom of the ocean and they keep the carbon there with them. This doesn’t happen in every instance, we know whales wash up in the water by generally speaking, they will sink and keep the carbon with them. Their bodies decompose and other animals take them in but they become sediment. So the carbon stays there, as opposed to for example, a tree which dies in the forest and then as its decomposing the carbon gets rereleased into the air, just for a comparison.”

The importance of whales as ecosystem engineers is being recognized internationally. At the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting in September 2018 in Brazil, two resolutions were passed recognizing the role that whales bring as ecosystem engineers including climate change and carbon cycling.

“There’s one that was resolution on advancing the commissions work on the role of cetaceans in the ecosystem functions, and encouraged members of the IWC to integrate the value of whales, cetaceans ecological roles into local, regional and global organizations and their legislation and the way that they manage and protect. And secondly, there was another declaration called the Florianopolis declaration and it recognized that the role of the International Whaling Commission has evolved to include maintenance of healthy cetacean populations to fulfill the vidil ecological and carbon cycling roles that these animals play in the global marine ecosystems functioning,” Barefoot added.

The entire convention and the whole IWC is for the purpose of sustainable harvest.

“The IWC came into effect because they wanted to create sustainable populations of whales for the purpose of harvesting them, and this is still in the language of the convention,” stated Barefoot. “And this kind of shift and refocus the mandate of managing populations, not just so they can be harpooned and harvested but to one where we kind of reconceptualize whales as partners and integral parts of earths ecosystems. So really kind of a pivotal shift that we’re still working through and trying to bring into law and policy.”

 What does this mean moving forward? Scientists around the world are continually looking into whales and whale carbon and trying to quantify and understand better how they contribute to ecosystem functioning.

“What I can say is whales are one of the most advanced animals where we actually understand them and  this and we can say with confidence that a whale will sequester more carbon than it will emit during its lifespan,” Barefoot said. “And so we continue to work and understand that and not just understand the whale’s role but other roles because whales and the whale waste and the photosynthesis also has affects on krill and other things that kind of eat and use the same ecosystem, so its not just the whales. And then of course the important thing is to bring this into protections and our policy and our understanding and our management of our ocean species.”

For more information on Earthjustice please visit

For more information on Cet Law please visit

For more information on the IWC please visit