20-Ton Canaries: The Great Whales of the North Atlantic (Keynote)
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This two-part lecture provides a brief illustrated journey through our whaling past, and the heart-breaking current story of the North Atlantic right whale.
Using many slides, author Eric Jay Dolin recaps highlights from his recent book, Leviathan. Among the tidbits, we learn that Captain John Smith (of Jamestown fame) came to Maine and Massachusetts in 1614 to hunt for whales (with a sideline in gold and silver). It was a bust, like some of his other ventures. The next settlers had more luck, harvesting dead whales that drifted ashore. Through the next century, colonists mastered offshore whaling, and ultimately more than half the income New England earned from selling products to England was derived from whales.
With breaks during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, New Englanders built up the whaling industry steadily: By 1846, there were 735 American whaling ships (out of 900 worldwide) earning 70,000 people their living. $70 million was invested in whaling infrastructure, and 60 coastal cities and towns rose from whale harvesting. It was the fifth largest industry in the U.S., providing the clean-burning candles favored by Ben Franklin and baleen for ladies’ hoops and stays.
It was also a dangerous, bloody and stinking vocation, involving years at sea, death by fin or rope, and hours over a boiling rendering vat. Populations of whales sank drastically, and whalers searched farther for their prey. West Coast whalers chased bowheads into the Arctic and were trapped by ice. Ultimately, the American whaling industry “sailed into oblivion” with the discovery of oil in Titusville, PA, the Civil War, and the evaporation of the baleen-based corset market – done in by new Paris fashions.
The tiny, remaining population of North Atlantic right whales – perhaps 350 -- is known to researchers “better than any other mammal in the world,” says Michael Moore. Their continued existence depends on our “walking a tightrope between commerce and conservation.” Perhaps this individual knowledge adds to the poignancy of his account: Whales tracked and photographed since they were babies are spotted now with fishing rig wrapped around their fins, or hack marks cut into their bodies by ship propellers.
The “trajectory” for these animals does not look good: from 1986 to 2005, biologists counted 50 dead right whales. This does not include those animals that simply sank out of sight after they died. Moore is quietly indignant: death by fishing rope constriction is awful, lasting for months in some cases. “There’s the conservation piece,” he says, “and the extreme animal welfare issue.” There’s also the matter of deteriorating habitat and dwindling food supply, toxic contaminants, and noise.
The only hope for these creatures lies in measures that reduce the chances that whales get fouled in fishing gear, and that slow down boats in the lanes favored by whales up and down the East Coast. More mitigation must be done to achieve animal welfare and sustainable global ecology while satisfying human needs, maintains Moore.
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