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This cover story in the May/June issue of The Environmental Magazine was received by email from Leila Dregger of Zegg University on Sunday 27th April 1997.

Pursued to the Brink of Extinction,Cetaceans Fight For Survival, Against Man-Made Odds

E/The Environmental Magazine - May June 1997

COVER STORY: By Elaine Robbins

In the early 1970s, the slogan "Save the Whales" became the mantra of the still-embryonic environmental movement. The plight of these beloved mascots of the sea captured the popular imagination--and mobilized protests that culminated in one of the great victories of green activism: a global moratorium on whaling. Now, 25 years later, "Save the Whales" is such a cliche--so '60s, really--that it's almost embarrassing to still be talking about it. But are the whales any better off now in the 1990s?

With man's insatiable taste for fish and seafood, whales now find themselves competing with humans for their principal food source--krill (shown). Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that they are not. Whales still haven't rebounded from the dramatic stock declines caused by centuries of hunting. Seven of the eight great whale species decimated by whaling are still on the Endangered Species List. Only one--the California gray, also known as the Pacific gray--has recovered in sufficient numbers to be removed from the list. And this spring the whales face a critical battle for survival: Several whaling nations have filed to downlist six species of great whales from their present endangered status at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting, effectively opening the way for a full-scale resumption of commercial whaling.

But while recent activists' efforts have focused on holding the moratorium, are we missing the warning signs that there are other, more immediate threats that could be sending some of the most endangered species toward extinction? Is a radically different approach necessary to truly save the whales?

Look at just a few of the signs:

* The northern right whale--so named because it was slow and yielded plenty of oil and was therefore the "right" whale to hunt in the early days of whaling--is the most endangered species. Only 295 remain-so few that biologists have named each of them. The greatest current threats to its existence are not hunting but human encounters. The right whale faces collisions with cargo ships and entanglement in fishing nets as it commutes up and down the eastern U.S. coast between New England and northern Florida.

* The St. Lawrence River population of beluga whale is so contaminated by DDT and PCBs that when one dies its carcass has to be disposed of as toxic waste. This population, which once numbered 5,000, has been reduced to 500.

* The Southern Hemisphere population of the blue whale, the largest mammal on Earth, could become extinct within the next decade. That's no small thing, even in an age when species drop off the face of the planet with alarming regularity. There are so few left--just a few hundred animals, down from an original 250,000--and they travel over vast stretches of ocean, that they may be having trouble finding mates. Marine biologists fear that the growing cacophony of manmade sounds under the sea--everything from ship engines to oil drills--may be interfering with their ability to communicate with each other over long distances.

A beluga, whose population in the St. Lawrence is threatened. It's hard not to notice that whales have been washing ashore sick and disoriented with increasing frequency in the last 20 years. The likely culprit? Water pollution. "Sooner or later, all persistent chemicals released into the environment end up in the oceans," says World Wide Fund for Nature Senior Scientist Theo Colborn. Whales tend to accumulate these toxins in their blubber by eating fish tainted with mercury, lead, and PCBs--substances that many scientists believe have caused everything from immune system and metabolic problems to decreased fertility and genetic mutations in other species.

Although scientists can't predict what effects this exposure will have in the long run, they fear that the effects could be drastic and leave little time for recovery. "Whale populations could crash suddenly with little warning," says Colborn.

The Crisis in Krill

And with man's insatiable taste for fish and seafood, whales now find themselves competing with humans for food. With the depletion of 13 of 17 of the world's major fish stocks, fish-eating species are having to spend more time hunting for food. Baleen whales--humpbacks, blues, fin and minkes--have until recent years been saved by their penchant for eating low on the food chain: krill is their main dietary staple. But now humans are developing a taste for this tiny shrimplike creature, too. Krill is increasingly being harvested as a "natural supplement" and is sold frozen, canned and as a food paste in supermarkets throughout Asia and the Pacific.

As Andrew Christie reported in Sea Shepherd Log (second quarter 1995), Japan is aggressively marketing krill to consumers, and is even offering free krill cookbooks. Japan and the smaller krill-fishing nations--Panama, Poland, and the Ukraine--are awaiting new surveys that may increase the conservation limits for catching krill in the Southern Ocean from 1.5 million tons to as much as four to six million tons annually. Conservationists are particularly concerned that whales will suffer if krill fishing vessels catch the huge swarms of Antarctic krill that whales are believed to feed on.

Uproar Down Under

The growing cacophony of human-produced undersea noise could pose another serious danger (see "The Unquiet Oceans," Currents, March/April 1997). Whales use hearing to navigate, find food, stay in contact with their young, and find each other for courting and mating. Marine biologists are concerned that this noise--created by ships' engines, oil drilling, and many other sources--could be interfering with their long-distance calls, which some think can travel hundreds of miles. (Scientists are only now beginning to understand the full importance of whale "song," aided by access to the sensitive listening posts the military maintained to monitor submarine traffic during the Cold War.)

If the Scripps Institution of Oceanography gets its way, whales and other marine mammals may soon find their ocean realm invaded by noise on a maddeningly regular basis. Scripps plans to send 195-decibel sound blasts--emitted for 25 minutes six times a day for up to 10 years--off the coasts of California and Hawaii to help it measure global warming. Biologists fear that the noise could have any number of detrimental effects on whales, from behavioral disturbances to deafness. According to the Animal Protection Institute, the tests have already caused the death of three whales. API calls the tests "redundant" and "badly mismanaged" and argues that Scripps' work will cause more environmental problems than it solves.

Environmental Casualties

Whales may be among the first animals to feel the effects of ozone depletion and global climate change. Cases of skin cancer have been turning up in species that live in Antarctic waters beneath the hole in the ozone layer. There is also evidence that increased UV exposure could hurt Antarctic krill, which live in the upper part of the water column, making them vulnerable to UV exposure. Krill eggs, which float on the surface, are even more vulnerable. Scientists at the Southwest Fisheries Center have found that UV exposure can damage the eggs of small fish--an effect it's likely to have on krill eggs as well.

Whalers have a history of cheating, in some cases killing 20 times the number of the most endangered species that they have previously reported. If Antarctic ice continues to melt as a result of global warming, whale habitats could change dramatically. Says Michael Tillman, director of the Southwest Fisheries Center, "Antarctic blue whales feed on concentrations of krill that live along the ice edges and in the ice pack. If their habitat is changed--loss of ice, loss of food--then they have nowhere else to go. And that's very worrisome."

But the biggest problem is simply that low numbers make recovery a slow process. "We're seeing very little progress so far in a relatively short time span," says Gerald Leape, Greenpeace's legislative director for ocean issues. "Fish can bounce back in a couple of years. Whales take longer than that. Whales reproduce more slowly than humans."

Given these new threats, does it make any sense to reopen the seas to whaling? Is there any valid reason to refuse Norway's request to the International Whaling Commission for permission to conduct a "sustainable" hunt of abundant minke whales? (Whalers went after the largest whales first, so the minke, the smallest of the great whales, was spared the devastation of the other species.)

There's only one problem: Whalers have a history of cheating. In 1993 the Soviet Union stunned the world with the revelation that, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, they had killed perhaps as many as 20 times the number of the most endangered species than they had previously reported. The blue whale in particular offers an irresistible lure for whalers who might be tempted to cheat. At 60 to 80 tons and more than 100 feet long, a blue whale could fetch as much as half a million dollars on the Japanese market.


Through a loophole in the global moratorium, Japan continues whaling--providing for the popular whale meat market. To understand the problem, visit any fish market in Japan, where you'll find a bewildering variety of fish and seafood for sale, from bluefin tuna as big as a man's torso to buckets full of live eels. But most mysterious is the whale meat that's sold for up to $160 a pound and usually ends up as sashimi in expensive Japanese restaurants. Selling some whale meat domestically is legal--the Japanese continue to hunt a few hundred minke whales each year under a "scientific purposes" loophole in the moratorium and are permitted to sell the meat at home. But you can never be too sure what you're looking at. In 1993, two biologists from New Zealand and Hawaii performed DNA tests on a variety of whale meat purchased at retail markets throughout Japan. What did they find? Many of the samples were not minke but such endangered species as humpbacks, fin whales and blue whales, and some was illegally imported.


In fact, some environmentalists fear Norway's legal hunt provides a cover for the illegal trade. Contraband shipments of whale meat are seized periodically entering Japan and Korea. Whaling nations could get such an opening as they mount the biggest attack on whaling legislation since the onset of the moratorium at the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Zimbabwe June 9-20. Japan and Norway have filed resolutions to reclassify six different species of great whales from Appendix I to Appendix II, from threatened status in which trade is strictly prohibited to one in which trade is regulated but allowed.

Says Greenpeace's Leape, "If they're successful, it will give them a legal justification for pushing a resumption of commercial trade. And if they get a resumption of commercial trade, then they lift the moratorium, and then commercial whaling begins again--not just by Norway, but on a large scale. That will allow whalers to reopen the markets with Japan, and then there's that economic incentive. Because right now, there's no other country in the world that offers that kind of price for whale meat and whale products.

"We've stopped the decline, but the whales need some time to recover," says Leape. "And the last thing we need is a full-scale resumption of commercial whaling--that will really drive them down the tubes."

Saving the Whale-Again

So what should we do now if we truly want to save the whale? Many conservationists celebrated the 1994 creation of an Antarctic whale sanctuary along the whole bottom third of the Earth as a great victory. But sanctuaries may not be the answer. (As Jacques Cousteau said in his inimitable way, "Our God! Was it forgotten that whales migrate?") But we do need to continue to hold the line against commercial whaling, especially against the kind of critical assault that's being mounted in Zimbabwe. Cousteau has suggested extending the moratorium another 50 years--the period he says is needed for populations to truly rebound to allow a "maximum sustainable yield." Last year the Australian government announced its plans to push for a permanent ban on commercial whale-hunting.

Norwegian whalers "harvest" minkes in 1983. Much can be done to improve monitoring and enforcement of the whaling that does continue. We need to improve the reliability of the species counts upon which whaling limits are based. We need a more effective observation and inspection system. (The World Wildlife Fund has proposed that each whaling vessel at sea longer than 12 hours have an inspector on board.) DNA testing could be implemented on a widespread basis to enforce whaling laws.

In fact, this year the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla should complete its DNA library, which would enable monitors to identify the species of whale meat and trace which ocean it came from.

To save the critically endangered northern right whale, the U.S. government needs to take the lead in introducing measures to protect this slow-moving creature from ship collisions. "These whales are predictable," says Leape. "You can tell they're going to be off Charleston during the month of March and off New England in May, June and July. So you could say that during specific times of year--say if you're a ship that has to go into Charleston in March--that you cut your speed by half and take other precautions."

Other measures to protect the northern right whale are already underway. In 1995 a federal judge found Massachusetts in violation of the Endangered Species Act because right whales were getting injured or killed after becoming entangled in fishing gear in Cape Cod Bay. A task force composed of Boston Harbor fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists has come up with modifications to lobster gear and gill nets to reduce the risk of entanglement.

Whales may be among the first animals to feel the effects of ozone depletion and global climate change. Most important, we need to start finding ways to protect the oceans, of which whales' decline is only the most visible symptom. Along with continued efforts to reduce water pollution, measures should be introduced into international maritime law that would set limits on undersea noise. To accommodate such limits, available technology could be used to make ship engines less noisy.

Cetaceans continue to awe and inspire the human species, as the ever-growing list of whale watches attests (see sidebar). But if these magnificent denizens of the deep are going to remain as fellow Earth travelers-and not just displays of dusty bones in the world's museums-immediate, decisive action is needed. "Save the Whales" will have to be a rallying cry again.


ELAINE ROBBINS is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.


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