Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. V No. 1 January 1996


"8,11,9,13,11,13,11,7,16,12,17,12,6,8,7"

by William Rossiter, CSI President


Yes, these are lottery numbers. A losing lottery based on science and caused by human behavior; these declining numbers are the actual right whale calves born to "our" Western North Atlantic population by year from 1981 to 1995. Hovering just over 300, "our" right whales are outnumbered by people waiting on Provincetown's dock to get on summer whalewatches, and almost half show scars from boat impacts or net entanglements. These are the impact survivors, with an increasing number showing lesions that may be caused from impact stress. Their immune systems may also be stressed from our pollution of their coastal habitat. Cape Cod Bay is vital to them, potentially supporting up to 24 right whales in March, but only without more human damage. Their slow recovery suffers from the severe genetic bottleneck we whaled them into, yet some seem to vanish offshore, giving hope to pristine breeding and feeding grounds far from our impact. Science has provided these and other tools to illuminate the right whale's plight. But you are the one who must use those tools. "Our" legislators would prefer to ignore these tools and concentrate on short term profit. You have to show them the facts, and how you feel. The right whale is just one example. 1996 seems crammed with others. Do you feel overwhelmed? I often do.

Why "our" whales? First, because many CSI members have thrilling memories of just a glimpse of one. Next, many other people see them as "ours" as they see themselves as stewards of the earth. But I use "ours" as in "our problem", because we're causing it. What's your response to the pitiful truth that "our" whales are losing life's lottery because of us? Get on a whalewatch and see a right whale before they're gone, or get really angry and take it out on Congress? Your frustration with "our" legislators is matched by millions, but few act. Your actions could do so much.

So could actions from scientists. That was evident during the exhausting and whirlwind biennial conference of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, in Orlando just before Christmas. A plethora of papers detailed human impacts on cetaceans and the marine environment all over the world. But few of the scientists there also play the role of activist. Collecting and presenting data is one thing. But using it or one's professional image to effect change with that data is quite another, somehow seen as inappropriate. Frustrated, I used to think this was an Ivory Tower thing, and for a very few it might be. But most just suffer the need, training, and peer pressure to have sufficient data before they act. They are conditioned to be uncertain about actions based on inadequate facts, guesswork, or gut feelings. They try so hard to separate science and human nature. Professionally this is useful, but for right whales and the need to modify human impact it is disastrous. We need more scientists to act.

There are a number of scientists who have always been risk takers, and very human about speaking out to protect and serve the creatures they study and love. Their undeniable expertise, frontier data, innovative thinking, and sheer presence have propelled many conservation initiatives and solved many problems. Roger Payne and Stormy Mayo stand out, but now I've unintentionally insulted the many others who stand with them. There is also a potent and powerful younger generation of scientists, discarding the professional shackles and acting human much more eagerly. I am particularly in awe at the quality and potential evidenced by the Latin Americans at the biennial. And very proud too. CSI had a significant role in getting many of them there, and we even worked out free rooms and registration for some. Many had received small grants from CSI for their projects. All presented impressive and productive data. All are accelerating activists. What an investment! It gave me such enormous hope. A daily joy was to meet people with enormous potential or build bridges for future collaborative research and educational programs. The days were exhausting and the potentials seemed endless.

During the student award ceremony M.C. Pieter Folkens presented a unique and spontaneous surprise award to CSI, on behalf of the Board of Governors, in recognition of our role in helping the science of marine mammals. Later many of those who came up to express their congratulations reminded me that they too would never forget CSI's early support, and I was reminded of the significant number of excellent scientists we have helped. I can say it again: what an investment!

Some "Whales Alive!" readers are scientists, and for 1996 I hope that more of them use their expertise to act on behalf of cetaceans and the marine environment with less professional restraint. For the rest of us who just care a lot I hope we can realize that science substantiates what we intuitively know to be true, and learn to use it. Whales, dolphins, and the marine environment are in serious trouble, there is still time to fix it, but we all must act.


Go to next article: CSI Opposes Whaling by the Makah or: Table of Contents.

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