Archive for March, 2012

The End of Whaling

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

It’s getting close.

The annual Japanese whaling season in the Antarctic has now ended. Granted a quota of 1000 minke whales by the International Whaling Commission to be killed for ‘scientific purposes’, they killed less than 300, along with a single finback.

Typical view of a minke whale, the smallest of the 'Great Whales'. (wildwhales.org)

Globally, about 2000 whales, mostly minkes, are still killed each year. Besides the whales they kill in the Antarctic, the Japanese also hunt several hundred in their own territorial seas in the North Pacific. Iceland and Norway illegally kill about 600 hundred whales, unsanctioned by the IWC. Another several hundred whales are killed annually, but legally, for subsistence reasons by native populations in Greenland, Russia, the US and Canada.

Greenpeace at work interfering with the Japanese hunt in the Antarctic (greenpeace.org)

The Japanese whaling in the Antarctic gets most of the attention, partly because everyone knows scientific whaling is a hypocritical mask for commercial hunting. One of the reasons for the reduced catch this year was the harassment by anti-whaling ships of both Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The Sea Shepherd Society has again been the most militant, sending its ship the Bob Barker after the Japanese ships, trying to foul their propeller blades with ropes. The Japanese have responded with water cannons, as they have before. Not surprisingly, a collision occurred.

Collision: Sea Shepherd's 'Bob Barker' at work interfering with Japanese whaler, in the open sea, about 2400 km from southern Australia, not far from the Antarctic coast(news.com.au).

This has not been a conservation issue. The anti-whalers are there to defend ‘animal rights’, and they have had little difficulty raising funds to do so.

The Japanese are there in defense of a waning Japanese cultural tradition of eating whale meat, willing to sustain the hunt despite the disapproval of most of the world, but still oddly intent on keeping to the letter of the IWC laws prohibiting the killing of whales for commercial purposes.

The 'Brigitte Bardot' a scouting vessel of Sea Shepherd, before it got badly damaged by high waves near the coast of Antarctica this year. (birdseyeview.com.au)

But the taste and market for whale meat is declining everywhere – at least in Japan, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. The cost to the Japanese of hunting whales in the Antarctic is considerable, and is subsidized by the Japanese Government. The cost of the anti-whaling effort almost as much as cost of the hunting.

The anti-whalers won’t stop until the Japanese do, but there are indications that the Japanese might stop next year. The Japanese could use some help in saving face on this, for otherwise the farce could still drag on.

The 'Yushin Maru' leaving port to do some research on the whales it will kill. (Japantimes.org)

A couple of months ago a proposal in Nature got some attention: why not put a price on each whale in the Japanese quota and let the conservation organizations buy their freedom, removing them from the hunted quota? At $13,000 per minke and $85,000 per finback, the Japanese would make their money, the lives of the whales wold be saved from the hunt, and the anti-whalers wouldn’t have to spend the comparable millions in harassing the whalers.

Another typical view, this time of a finback, one of the largest whales.(flikr.com)

This doesn’t sound unreasonable – other schemes of trade have worked to reduce carbon emissions and to conserve forested land. But as others have also pointed out, the whalers are in it at least in past for the tradition, not just the money, and the anti-whalers are not conservationists, they are animal-rightists, and funding for them is not an issue.

Interesting, though, to put a real price on the value of minke whale, the smallest of the whales, or on a much larger finback. This helps to focus our moral compass, don’t you think?

In fact the whole affair is neither comical nor tragic. It is just farce, absurd behaviour by all participants, wasting funds, energy, time and whales, in attempts to uphold two indefensible positions.

Brigitte Bardot when she was still an actress, before she became an animal-rights activist . (listal.com)

Orca Aliens

Monday, March 26th, 2012

The orbiting, planet-hunting Kepler Telescope continues to find ever more planetary systems in our galaxy, and California’s Allen Telescope Array is again listening for signals from distant alien species. There really are likely to be small rocky, water-bearing and life-supporting planets somewhat like our Earth, orbiting their stars, scattered throughout our galaxy, and therefore throughout the universe.

The Kepler Telescope launched in 2009 and dedicated to identifying habitable planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy, is finding more planetary systems than anyone ever expected(nasa.gov)

Light travels about 16 trillion miles per year. The closest star to us, Alpha Centauri is four light-years away, and we are 50,000 light-years from the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which in turn is 150,000 light-years in diameter.

We’ll never travel to other stars and their planetary systems, so exchanging signals with other intelligent species much like ourselves over these immense distances is all we can hope for. Of course the conversations would be slow, considering that nothing exceeds the speed of light, not even Italian neutrinos.

Such a faint hope, then. Perhaps some of these planets, many light-years away, support life forms more complicated than bacteria. Among these, perhaps some species have evolved complex cooperative behavior, and have what we think of as intelligence.

What would they look like? How would they communicate with each other? Would they be aware of themselves? Of their communities? Of their planet? Of the rest of the universe? Would they try to communicate with intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy? Why would they? The questions are endless, and we may never get answers.

Sharing planet Earth with us are some intelligent, cooperative hunting mammals that have brains and anatomies sort of like ours. Wolves, chimps and dolphins come to mind. If we are going to succeed in communicating with any other species, we should start here.

Killer Whales – Orca - are the largest of the dolphins, and are as good an example as any to think about. We have tagged them, tracked them, mapped their DNA, counted them, figured out some of their life histories and their relationships with each other, observed and recorded their hunting behavior and their migrations, and recorded and analysed the sounds they make.

Orcas observe and circle a seal on an ice floe (nus.edu.sg)

The whales cooperate to rock the floe with a bow wave to dislodge the seal (telegraph.co.uk)

In the Antarctic, some Orcas hunt minke whales, some hunt seals, some hunt fish, and others hunt penguins.

But we have utterly failed to communicate anything important with them. What sort of language do they have? Do they have a language? We think they have sub-cultures that vary among families or pods. How do these emerge, how are they taught and communicated?

Orcas cruise the oceans of the planet, they are clearly intelligent by any definition, but they don’t build things. They are not going to emit signals out into space in an attempt to contact other imagined species on other extremely distant worlds.

Though exciting to contemplate, the odds of our receiving emitted signals from alien species on planets orbiting other stars must also be perilously close to zero.

A tagged female Orca swims from the West Antarctic Peninsula in a non-stop return trip to the warm waters off the coast of Brazil at the peak of the southern summer, traveling 9400 km in 42 days at about 12 km/hr. Such trips appear to be common, but their function is unknown, a matter of speculation.

There is no reason to think that intelligent species on other planets, if they exist, will be anything like us, let alone have any of our addiction to building things. And though the Universe may be filled with life – perhaps mostly bacterial in complexity, perhaps not – we are too far away from any other planetary systems to ever visit them.

To think we are somehow going to communicate with other species on other planets is also beyond unlikely. We can’t even do it with species we co-exist with here.

Even if the Universe is teeming with life, the distance are so great that we really are on our own. This makes it ever more critical that we conserve, protect, and recover what we can of our own ecosystems. We should celebrate the extraordinary complexity and beauty of the other intelligent species we share this planet with – elephants, chimps, wolves, ravens, sperm whales, dolphins, and all the rest.

Meaningful communication with another species would be so amazing.

These are harsh years on this planet, but why not dream?

The Allen Telescope Array searches for signals indicating intelligent elsewhere in our galaxy, an expensive and futile effort (seti.org)

Cod, the Fading Icon

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

The sad saga of cod decline on the east coast of North America continues. Fisheries scientists now say that their surveys and models indicate that the remaining population of cod in the Gulf of Maine has reached a dangerously low level and that continued harvesting will push the stock to collapse.

The stock of cod in the Gulf of Maine has always been accessible to small boats fishing from shore communities. That could soon be over. (gma.gov)

Though they didn’t recommend complete closure of the fishery, along the lines of the Canadian relatively permanent moratorium on cod fishing, they did recommend such a deep cut that fishermen said cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine would no longer be worth the effort. In frustrated response, the fishermen say their own catches indicate there are still plenty of cod in the Gulf of Maine to sustain a decent harvest.

Fishing boat carrying cod into Gloucester, Mass (nytimes.com)

Both of course cannot be right. The conflict is a familiar one, played out in practically every fishery that has ever been regulated by non-fishermen. The fishermen base their conclusions on the ease with which they find and capture the fish, and they distrust the scientists’ models. The fisheries scientists don’t reject what the fishermen report, but base their own conclusions on a wider set of data, and of course
they believe in their models.

So are there enough cod to sustain some sort of fishery, or aren’t there? The reality is that we don’t know for sure, either way. Such uncertainty is what all fisheries scientists – and all ecologists – live with, a defining feature of their science. But such uncertainty drives everyone else nuts – fishermen and politicians especially.

Cod landings in the gulf of Maine over the past century: now seriously low (NAFO.org)

Decisions still get made, and over the past decades, they have usually favored the fishermen – until things get truly drastic, and a moratorium on fishing a particular species is forced on everyone. In the case of Gulf of Maine cod, the fishermen have won once again…maybe.

The regional New England Management Council requested that NOAA approve a one-year emergency extension of the existing quota, instead of the devastating 82% cut previously announced. Under great pressure to agree, NOAA has agreed to a one-year extension, with just a 22% cut in quota.

So what happens a year from now? Will the cod population magically recover this season, and allow for continued fishing? It won’t. Instead, it will probably be worse off, closer to collapse, and facing an even longer recovery period. A full moratorium then becomes ever more likely.

A full size cod - memory or dream, but no longer reality (mass.gov)

It is odd that that the cod fishing will continue this season, despite the advice of the fisheries scientists. The NOAA is committed to protecting all of its fisheries, with the intent of supporting sustainable fishing in all of them. Applying the Precautionary Approach, it has made a lot of headway, despite the resistance of fishermen and politicians.

Why not this time? Perhaps this an election-year decision, driven by powerful Congressmen and disdain for the NOAA.. It certainly isn’t simply empathy for the fishermen.

The outcome, though, is that a once-great cod population dwindles ever closer to oblivion.

A sad icon, indeed. Perhaps next year we will be wiser.