Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VIII No. 4 October 1999

The Mind-Numbing Big Picture: The Price Of The Information Age

By William Rossiter, CSI President

This Whales Alive! is crammed with issues and problems that might seem endless, unsolvable and overwhelming. With small print, long paragraphs and heavy issues it would be easy for you to turn away. But wait! It's not all bad news. While we are not at all glossy, we are trying for a flow here, to show how personal actions by ordinary people, like us, can make a difference. There are many victories in our effort to help cetaceans and the environment we all share. The victories come because of people like us who care to get involved. We are giving you information, but only to do something with it. Otherwise information just adds to the overload we all suffer today. CSI is trying to get you to act. We will show you how some others get involved. We will suggest things for you to do.

CSI is concerned with whales and dolphins in part as "indicator species". Think of whales as coal miners thought of canaries. Canaries were carried into deep mines because if the air became unbreathable the canaries would die first, giving the miners a chance to escape. Today we have all sorts of symbolic canaries warning us of the future, perhaps so many and so often that we may not pay attention anymore. Just one example is CSI's partial funding of a study of the "Epidemiology of cetacean morbillivirus worldwide" by Dr. Marie-Françoise Van Bressem and Dr. Jorge Chávez of Peru, which we hope will allow a broad perspective for a disease perhaps related to human impacts. Another example is the well-known J, K, and L orca pods in Puget Sound, Washington, which have dropped from 98 to 84 individuals in the last four years. One reason is a collapsing ecosystem in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At the top of the food chain, orcas accumulate biotoxins concentrated from their prey's prey's prey. Herring stocks have been declining for over a decade in the Strait and Sound and may become candidates for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Herring are food for chinook salmon. Chinooks are already depleted, contain unsafe levels of toxic chemicals, and are listed as "Threatened". The lack of chinook makes resident orcas forage for bottom fish, which carry even more chemical loads than salmon. In spite of increasing evidence ESA listings are difficult to put into effect. They are almost always at odds with big businesses, the polluters. The inevitable battle of Economics over Environment will be fought with big money in political arenas, and even these beloved orcas may not get help in time.

CSI is concerned with cetaceans as individuals more than abstract numbers. We fight for lone dolphins suffering in portable displays in Latin America. Here we congratulate Brazil for working to prevent all portable displays, and recently denying a permit for such a show to enter from Paraguay. We fight for wild populations that can sometimes be numbered in the hundreds, as with the right whale, vaquita, and some river dolphins. We are very aware that worldwide populations of most cetacean species do not equal the people cheering at a sporting event, or gridlocked on a Los Angeles freeway. Whale watchers on one boat can outnumber all the right whales in that ocean. All worldwide whale and dolphin populations put together do not equal the number of people willing to pay to see orcas performing tricks in captivity. At 2100 ET on 8 October 1999 the human population reached six billion people. The first billion was reached in 1800. Another billion are added every 12 years. At the current rate the population will have doubled again, to 12 billion, in only 75 years. As incomprehensible as these numbers are they relate directly to our lives and concerns. How many times recently have you read or seen something declaring that species and ecosystems are vanishing? Do you feel the alarm the titles demand? Or have the tolling numbers of destruction and suffering become a mind-numbing blur? Do you skip articles or documentaries because they are too depressing, you can't take any more, it doesn't hit at home, or you don't know what to do about it? Do you feel you want to change the channel? Most people today are either changing the channel or absorbed in mere survival. In the U.S. an economic boom has distorted worldwide realities until we forget that everything else is suffering. Our children will pay the price for this fantasy, a price far greater than any drop in the stock market. Still, I must look away sometimes because, in spite of feeling guilty, I must do it for my survival. There is too much happening. The Information Age is an overload. To spread my attention and action just weakens whatever I can finally muster to act.

But we all must act. Public action is a very real solution. It's what CSI is really about. When CSI began in 1974, as the Connecticut Cetacean Society, whales were the big environmental banner to rally around. Earth Day was a concept that many people lived by. Victories fueled the heady environmental movement. The issues were more simple then, certainly more black and white. But today stickers on car bumpers have been replaced by status logos on everything else. In these "good times" some have trouble relating to the alarms, or finding time to act on them. Happily, Whales Alive! readers are not representative of the general population. Along with the common need to prioritize for your families and security, somehow you find time to do more, or want to. You try to stay informed, and translate that into action. But are you frustrated with all the issues that cry for help?

Your first positive act may be to focus on just a few issues that interest or upset you the most. Concentrate your available time and resources on them. Keep the others distant for a while, without guilt. Learn the facts. Form an educated opinion. Put your personal skills and opportunities to work. Help a non-profit market educational information. Persuade a politician or media person to care about an issue. Help a child to do a school report, or a teacher to start a classroom project. Convince a corporation that there is profit in getting involved. Support organizations that are acting as you want to act. Give them information and contacts, and act on the information they give. CSI needs your help with all these things. Can you act on just one item in this newsletter? Small actions can have large benefits. As one example we recently donated a full set of the prestigious journal Marine Mammal Science, and the published Abstracts of the World Conference on Marine Mammals (Monaco, 1998), to the National Museum of Natural History in Montevideo, Uruguay. We thank Dr. Robert Brownell for identifying the Museum as a suitable recipient and for voluntarily delivering initial volumes of the Journal in 1998. CSI will continue to donate our future copies of the Journal as they are received. Earlier this year CSI donated a subscription for the journal Aquatic Mammals to Professor Sheila Simão of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ), Brazil. Both journals are the only examples in those entire countries and necessary resources available to all cetologists there. Do you have a similar resource that you could donate through CSI?

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