We Are All Whalers
The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility
We Are All Whalers
The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility
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.
"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
"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"
"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."
“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
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
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.