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We Are All Whalers

The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility

We Are All Whalers

The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility

Relating his experiences caring for endangered whales, a veterinarian and marine scientist shows we can all share in the salvation of these imperiled animals.

The image most of us have of whalers includes harpoons and intentional trauma. Yet eating commercially caught seafood leads to whales’ entanglement and slow death in rope and nets, and the global shipping routes that bring us readily available goods often lead to death by collision. We—all of us—are whalers, marine scientist and veterinarian Michael J. Moore contends. But we do not have to be.

Drawing on over forty years of fieldwork with humpback, pilot, fin, and, in particular, North Atlantic right whales—a species whose population has declined more than 20 percent since 2017—Moore takes us with him as he performs whale necropsies on animals stranded on beaches, in his independent research alongside whalers using explosive harpoons, and as he tracks injured whales to deliver sedatives. The whales’ plight is a complex, confounding, and disturbing one. We learn of existing but poorly enforced conservation laws and of perennial (and often failed) efforts to balance the push for fisheries profit versus the protection of endangered species caught by accident.

But despite these challenges, Moore’s tale is an optimistic one. He shows us how technologies for ropeless fishing and the acoustic tracking of whale migrations make a dramatic difference. And he looks ahead with hope as our growing understanding of these extraordinary creatures fuels an ever-stronger drive for change.

For more information on Moore’s book and research, please visit his webpage at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

224 pages | 33 halftones | 5.5 x 8.5

Biological Sciences: Conservation, Natural History

Earth Sciences: Environment, Oceanography and Hydrology


"The threat to whales goes beyond the conventional images of harpooning ships, according to this moving and impassioned debut from veterinarian and marine scientist Moore. . . . . Moore injects his descriptions of the dire situation with a personal angle, sharing stories about how he came to study and care passionately about whales, creatures with awe-inspiring intelligence and social skills but whose population is threatened by humanity. . . . Technology offers a ray of hope—in his final chapter, Moore describes how using ropeless nets for commercial fishing and studying whale population movements can prevent accidental collisions and lessen the death toll. This empowering call to action stuns."

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Moore, a marine scientist and veterinarian, makes a compelling argument that whales’ survival depends on each of us—not just on those who venture out on ships, hunting whales for meat and blubber. It’s sobering to grapple with the ways we might unwittingly contribute to the mammals’ demise, like by eating commercially caught seafood. But Moore also offers reason to be hopeful, including new technologies for ropeless fishing.”

Washington Post, “15 Books to Read This Fall”

"After the world spent more than two centuries slaughtering whales to the point of near-extinction, international commercial whaling was finally banned in 1986. But in this highly persuasive book, the marine scientist Moore demonstrates that many of the gains are being undone by a combination of commercial fishing (in which whales are strangled with ropes and nets) and shipping (whales are often hit by passing cargo ships, and their songs are drowned out by the incessant drum of engines). The North Atlantic right whale’s population, for instance, has declined more than 20% since 2017. It’s not all doom and gloom, though: Moore (not to be confused with the filmmaker of the same name) furnishes solutions while sounding the alarm."

Bloomberg, “Six Best Books This Fall”

"In. . . We Are All Whalers: The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility, Moore writes that our choices about the food and other products we buy can make a difference in what happens to whales. The extension of that argument is that society as a whole could—and should—provide more support for fishers to move to ropeless gear."

Monga Bay

"Whale hunters aren’t the only threats to the world’s largest mammal, argues marine scientist Moore in this treatise on protecting the animals and helping them thrive."

Publishers Weekly, "Fall 2021 Announcements: Science"

"Moore goes where few scientists are comfortable to go, and where most scientists take deliberate steps to avoid. . . . His forty-three years of study, mostly focused on marine mammals, have exposed him to the animal pain and suffering side of what to many has been a mathematical exercise as North Atlantic right whale numbers freefall towards extinction—as they are beaten down by collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear, and climate change."

Cape Cod Times

"A scientific memoir of over thirty years of research, a great tale of the sea, and a call to arms."


"Moore paints a comprehensive picture of the challenges facing right whales, emphasizing the role that everyone plays in their conservation... passionate and philosophical..." 

Whales Online

"A fascinating memoir by a marine biologist-veterinarian who has devoted his entire life to developing methods for saving wild whales in distress, especially critically endangered North Atlantic right whales."


"This is the book all conservationists wish they could emulate... What may be most notable about this text is the author's sensitivity not only to the species he covers but also to all stakeholders in whale conservation, from indigenous hunters to commercial fishers. It is a thoughtful treatise that, through fact-based analysis, leads readers to confront the root of the problem—choices consumers make in a post-industrial society... Moore offers a most outstanding example of communicating science to advance conservation... Essential."


"Unsparing. . . . Intimate. . . . It is time for the government to support the changes that will have to be made if the right whale is to survive. Consumers, too, have a role. I can’t help thinking that the value of this book is bringing the problem up close and personal. The threat of extinction is, in the end, an abstraction, compared to the physical suffering of an entangled whale. Who wants to be the cause of that?"

Portland Press Herald

“Veterinarian Moore knows right whales inside and out, literally. Working chest deep in the guts of dead right whales, he sees, better than anyone, what’s killing them. It’s us. Moore describes how, demonstrating honestly, clearly, and compassionately the consequences of our cruelty, if inadvertent, toward a sentient animal.”

Deborah Cramer, author of "The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey"

“An affecting book, authored by a man whose life has circled the great whales, and whose sense of concern and care for these animals has only deepened over time. Moore challenges us to confront how implicated we all are in the ongoing destruction of sea life—and leaves the reader with indelible images of the suffering of countless magnificent animals fettered, gagged, slashed, and lost in the fatal obstacle course we have made of their domain.”

D. Graham Burnett, author of "The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century"

“A truly compelling, captivating, and in places heart-wrenching story of one scientist’s journey caring for a highly endangered species. The very predicament of North Atlantic right whales is our fault, and their recovery is also our responsibility, as we are all consumers and hence all culpable in the environmental costs of fish products and goods and services transported at sea. Coexistence with whales is possible, and Moore’s book lays the foundation.”

Moira Brown, Canadian Whale Institute

“Most of us know that whales are in danger but have only a vague understanding of why. Moore’s perspective from personal experience is unique, and this clear book should be read by the conservation community, scientists, and anyone interested in nature and human-whale interactions.”

Jane Maienschein, Arizona State University and the Marine Biological Laboratory

"Moore’s decades in the field were accompanied by a growing sense of urgency about one species in particular, the North Atlantic right whale. His new book, We Are All Whalers, looks back at his own life and forward to the tenuous future of these imperiled behemoths. He spent his career learning how to save right whales on an individual basis, with some success. 'But,' he writes, 'I also knew that prophylaxis had to be the ultimate goal of any veterinarian.' To save an entire species, Moore warns, we need a lot more hands on deck."

Bluedot Living

Table of Contents

1 Young Man, There Are No Whales Left
2 The First Whale I Had Ever Seen
3 Whaling with Intent
4 The Bowhead Is More than Food
5 Whaling by Accident
6 Treating Whales
7 Our Skinny Friend
8 Taking the Long View: Why Can’t We Let Right Whales Die of Old Age?
Postscript 1: Getting Really Cold
Postscript 2: A Lonely Tunnel with No Light at the End


Recently, I spent an early April day in the southwestern corner of Cape Cod Bay, in eastern Massachusetts, in the United States, with a friend. He had been at sea his entire working life, but had never knowingly been close to a right whale. His day job was master of an oil tanker on the Valdez, Alaska, to San Francisco, California, run, where he might have been close to a North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica). He was vastly overqualified to skipper our boat, which he did while I piloted a small drone to measure the lengths and widths of the many feeding North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) we had found in a small area. There was no wind that day. The sea was like a millpond. It was crisp, cold, sunny, and quiet. We shut down the motor, drifted, watched, and listened. As each animal surfaced, exhaled, and immediately inhaled, we listened to the unique cadence of their breaths, and we watched their steady progress through the water with their mouths wide open, filtering the clouds of food close to the surface. Periodically, they slowly closed on the boat, and we could see into their open mouths, with small eddies of water peeling away from their lips. Much larger eddies formed in their wakes as their powerful tails and bodies pushed them along. They made tight turns, using their huge flippers and tails as rudders, to keep themselves within the food patches. This went on all day. As the sun started to sink behind the cliffs on the nearby western shore of Cape Cod Bay, their creamy white upper jaws, just visible above the surface, turned to a vibrant golden hue. It was a peaceful, majestic, timeless sight, and a huge privilege to be permitted to study these animals. At the end of the day, my friend said that he understood why I care so passionately for them. Words often fail when I try to express the awe and wonder that these animals elicit; this book is my attempt to do them justice, and keep them out of jeopardy.

My hope is to convince you that the welfare of individual North Atlantic right whales, and the very survival of the species, is in our hands. Few humans eat whale meat anymore, but fishing techniques unintentionally harm and kill whales. Even vegetarians contribute to the problem, as we all benefit from global shipping of consumer goods and fuel, which, in its current iteration, leads to fatal collisions with whales. Entanglement in fishing gear can sentence these animals to months of pain and a slow death. Both the US and Canadian governments are stuck in a major conflict of interest: protecting the livelihoods and businesses of the marine transportation and fishing industries, but at the same time recognizing the value of biodiversity, animal welfare, and avoidance of species extinction. Recently, the latter values have taken a back seat. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the technology and the collaborations that are necessary to change the right whales’ future, but consumers have to use their wallets to make it happen. Hopefully, politicians still listen to their electorate.

Though I will use my personal experiences to make this argument, this book is not a memoir. I use descriptions of my life and work, and that of many, many others, to explain basic principles in marine science and what it would mean to lose this and other species. I also explain how we all can help whales to prosper. This story is, at times, gruesome, but I entreat you to stick with it. Again, I believe we can make it right. The fundamental problem for North Atlantic right whales, as for so many of us, is that they can’t make an adequate living and they struggle to raise a family successfully. Their carefully evolved energy budget does not work anymore.

Right whales’ habit of swimming for many hours at a time with their mouths open to filter food leaves them susceptible to strikes by vessels, and to being entangled in rope wrapped around their heads, flippers, and tails... Whales can be found feeding from the surface to the bottom—wherever the food is. Researchers have spotted them with mud on their heads, a sign that they sometimes come into contact with the ocean bottom. Rope entanglement is one of the leading causes of lethal and sublethal trauma in the North Atlantic right whale. Vertical lines used to mark and retrieve lobster and crab traps are the commonest types of rope in the water column of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, both in the United States (overwhelmingly lobster) and Canada (lobster and snow crab, primarily). In addition, vessel collisions commonly kill whales... 

Like most large whale species, right whales lack teeth. Instead, they have horny plates of a material called baleen suspended from their upper jaws. Some baleen whale species gulp larger prey, while right whales skim their small prey by swimming slowly and steadily. Baleen plates have hairy fringes that make a fine filter, so that right whales can swim through the water with open mouths, sieving through clouds of drifting animals, called zooplankton, that are smaller than rice grains. The water flows out through the baleen, creating endless eddies, while the food is concentrated and swallowed. This is an incredibly efficient way for a very large animal to eat very small ones. These zooplankton, primarily copepods, are oil rich and provide energy for the whales to exist, move, grow, and reproduce. The blubber coats of healthy right whales are full of oil and make the animals buoyant. Rich in oil, slow swimmers, mouths full of valuable baleen, and usually buoyant once they die: these traits made them very early targets for whalers...

Scientists have gleaned this level of detail, from what is essentially a rather cryptic animal, primarily by collecting thousands of photographs of these individually recognizable whales. The photographs are shared with a central database maintained at the New England Aquarium  in Boston, Massachusetts, and matched to a catalog of the individuals founded by Scott Kraus and colleagues. Each whale is given a four-digit number. Some are also given a name, usually related to an identifying feature, but occasionally for other reasons. But centuries before we knew them as individuals, thousands were killed for their oil-rich blubber and hugely valuable baleen...

In US and Canadian waters, during the 2017–2020 period—just four short years—10 percent of the species has died. In November 2020, the best estimate for the total number of North Atlantic right whales remaining in the species was a mere 356 animals.

To solve the problem, we need to have the understanding, commitment, and optimism to carry through with what has to be done—by fundamentally changing fishing and shipping practices. But we also need to make these changes in ways that are sensitive to the lives of the humans that work in vessels at sea and harvest seafood. Both industries have already borne substantial costs in the name of right whale conservation, with inadequate results.

Right whales are a special example of mammals that have evolved to thrive in an unforgiving environment and are specialized in diverse and remarkable ways to exploit specific aquatic resources and environments. We must be the same.

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