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This feature article which appears in The Environmental Magazine was received by email from Leila Dregger of Zegg University on Sunday 27th April 1997.

The Whales' Lonely Song

The Environmental Magazine - May June 1997

In 1987, a tragedy occurred off Cape Cod. At least 15 humpback whales-members of a population only now beginning to recover from centuries of unhindered whaling-were poisoned by eating fish saturated with saxitoxin (a toxic byproduct of algae growth associated with red tide).

Humpbacks, more accustomed in the 1990s to the flash of cameras than the sting of harpoons, are nonetheless still not out of danger. In addition to the threat from pollution, they get tangled in fishermen's nets (which slowly starves them) or hit by boats. Lately, overfishing (and the threatened widespread harvesting of tiny, shrimplike krill, a principal part of many whales' diet) has put their food supply in danger as well. We've learned to love the humpbacks' songs, but we're still killing them-at least indirectly.

It's amazing that any cetaceans survived the savage onslaught of worldwide whaling, which reached its zenith with the fast steam boats and exploding harpoons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The systematic pursuit of these intelligent marine mammals devastated the 78 species of cetacean-in the humpback's case, that means 250,000 killed, 95 percent of the population, by the time they achieved global protection in 1966. Adding to the "authorized" toll, as Russia recently revealed, were untold thousands of unreported kills. As long as there's a lucrative market for whale meat (most particularly in Japan) the pirate trade will continue. Though the present-day whale hunt comes in a variety of guises-masquerading as "science," justified as part of native traditions-profit continues to be the major motivator.

But it's a mistake to see the high-profile-and internationally condemned-whaling operations of Japan, Norway and Russia as the only threats to endangered whales. The slow-moving northern right whale, prized for its oil, has almost disappeared; there are so few left that scientists have individually named them. The magnificent blue whale, the largest mammal on Earth at 110 feet long and 190 tons, is no longer hunted, but its populations-particularly in the Southern Hemisphere-are so reduced as to make extinction appear inevitable. A population that once numbered a quarter of a million has been reduced to a few hundred survivors so scattered as to make mating difficult.

It's not enough just to stop whaling. To truly "save the whales," we'll have to do more than protect them with treaties. Whales roam through every ocean on Earth, and ensuring their survival means preserving their vast habitat through international cooperation. It's easy to be pessimistic-because such cooperation has been notably lacking -but there's really no alternative if we want to continue to hear the whale's song.


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