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A Whale of a Story

Rancor over fishing rights in U. S. waters is only the latest chapter in the larger-than-life saga of the leviathans of the deep

  • Michael Lipske
  • Feb 01, 1993
James Mead has tracked the fortunes--particularly the misfortunes--of whales along the Atlantic Coast of the United Statesfor 20 years. To understand his work, he says, it helps to imagine a scientist visiting from outer space. "I like to think of myself as being like an alien biologist sent to Earth to get together data on the life history of humans," says the soft-spoken Mead, who works at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The one restriction on the space visitor, says Mead, would be that his only access to humans would be the bodies in the county morgue. In his own work, he collects life-history data only from dead whales and dolphins washing up on beaches between Charleston, South Carolina, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Once hunted with careless abandon, whales dead and alive are drawing a different sort of hunter these days: the curious. From studies like Mead's of strandings, to analysis of sperm whales' clicks, investigations of the mysterious leviathans of the deep are yielding a whale of a story.

A large part of the whale story is still about human interference. Though some whales are recovering, others are not yet thriving. And all are at risk from a new threat, competition for resources. In a crowded ocean on a hungry planet, says Nina Young, a scientist with the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, D.C., the big question will be, "Does the whale get a piece of the pie?"

As many as 20 species of whales inhabit, commute through, or just visit on rare occasions the waters along the coasts of the United States. Eight of nine species of "great" whales found in North American waters (the gray, right, blue, fin, sei, humpback, bowhead and sperm whales) are classed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. A ninth great whale, Bryde's, is considered neither endangered nor threatened.

The huge mammals migrate through a gauntlet of shipping lanes and gill nets, swimming in a bouillabaisse of plankton, crustaceans and fish-favored foods of most whales-spiced with toxic seasoning from factories, farms and sewage-treatment systems.

Some examples of current threats to North America's whales:

In the past decade, nearly a hundred humpbacks have died from entanglement in fishing gear off Newfoundland, Canada. Population estimates for humpbacks suggest that only about 10 percent of the pre-whaling population of 125,000 exist worldwide.

North Atlantic right whales, the most endangered marine mammals in American waters, have washed up with shattered spines and skulls, even severed tails, following run-ins with ships.

The St. Lawrence estuary's beluga whales, perhaps the most polluted animals on Earth, are afflicted with bladder cancer, ulcers and other diseases suspected of being caused by toxics from the region's industry.

The only consolation is that things were once worse, much worse, for America's and all the world's whales. The killing of whales in North American waters reached the level of mass slaughter in the early nineteenth century, the so-called Golden Age of whaling. More than 700 whaling ships left U.S. ports in 1846. In those days, American, British and French whalers sought whale oil to fuel street lamps, baleen (whalebone plates in the mouths of some species of cetaceans) for manufacturing of window blinds and umbrella staves, even whale flukes for making glue.

By 1864, Norwegian whalers had perfected harpoon cannons, devices that made targets of even swift cetaceans such as fin whales. Commercial hunting by several nations continued well into this century, when one of the modern uses of whale oil was as high-quality transmission fluid. The last U.S. whaling station shut in the early 1970s.

More than a quarter-million of the world's blue whales (including pgymy blues, a subspecies) are believed to have been killed between the mid-1920s and 1971; nearly 30,000 sperm whales were killed in 1964 alone. Only in 1986 did a worldwide ban on commercial whaling take effect (some "subsistence" whaling continues to be allowed, such as an annual hunt of bowheads by Alaska Natives). But even the relief from commercial whaling is under challenge; both Norway and Iceland announced in 1992 plans to defy the world whaling ban.

Some whales received protection decades ago. International treaties dating back to the 1930s and 1940s declared right and gray whales (two species long popular with American whalemen) off-limits to hunting.

How each of those two species has responded to protection maps the highs and lows of North American whale conservation. First, the good news: Once nearly wiped out, gray whales of the eastern Pacific Ocean have rebounded dramatically. Roughly 21,000 of the animals--close to the population size before commercial whaling-migrate between summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas and winter calving grounds along the coast of Baja California. Though still vulnerable to ship collisions and oil-and-gas operations, the whales may be removed from the U.S. Endangered and Threatened Species list early this year.

Along our East Coast, the northern right whale, in contrast, has barely responded to a half century of protection from whaling. Christened for its tendency to float conveniently after death, it was the "right" whale to kill. Only 350 now exist. About 11 calves a year are born to the slow-growing population.

Over the years, scientists studying North Atlantic right whales have photographed virtually every member of the tribe. Because those shots have been gathered into a collection at the New England Aquarium, "almost every whale we see now we know," says Scott Kraus, a right whale researcher at the aquarium. Photography has proved a powerful research tool with other whales too. Records of fluke color patterns and other characteristics help scientists chart migration routes and estimate stock sizes and lifespans.

A good part of the whale story is new knowledge about whale behavior. Scientists now think that the sperm whale, for example, may be the most intelligent of the whale species. Sperm whales tend to be quite social: Mothers even help each other care for the young, often sharing nursing duties. This is the only whale that may use echolocation, like bats, "seeing" by detecting returning echos from its own sonar pulses-though other whales may do something similar using simple calls.

As for new knowledge about whale romance: Humpbacks, once thought to mate for life, are now known to mate seemingly with abandon. Males vying for single fertile females sometimes battle each other in big melees, ramming into each other with damaging ferocity. And right whales conduct an intricate mating choreography, with a group of males encircling a female and taking turns mating with her when she surfaces to breathe.

Who underwrites all this probing into the ways of whales? A variety of institutions, including private marine-research foundations and universities. But a great deal of whale study has been financed by U.S. taxpayers, through research projects supported by federal agencies ranging from the Office of Naval Research to the State Department.

The two major government actors are the U.S. Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (the federal agency in charge of enforcing the 21-year old Marine Mammal Protection Act) and the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (which assesses potential impacts on whales and their habitat from offshore oil-and-gas work).

One scientist whose desk could bear a sign saying "Your Tax Dollars at Work" is Oregon State University researcher Bruce Mate, who has conducted research underwritten by Minerals Management. Although whales "do most of their business, their feeding in particular, underwater," says Mate, he has entered that hidden world by attaching radio transmitters (which beam information to orbiting satellites) to the mammals.

Attached with a dart fired from a crossbow, the transmitters have recorded huge amounts of data on dives and travels; from one right whale alone, Mate was able to chart nearly 50,000 dives as well as travels across more than 1,800 miles of ocean. He says such findings have helped change "the scientific understanding of what right whales are." Long seen as creatures that are slow-moving, near-shore dwelling and surface-oriented, says Mate, right whales actually turn out to be "often fast, offshore, long-distance swimmers that dive deep often."

Mate will soon attach radio tags to sperm whales living in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana, and use satellite technology to map the creatures' use of underwater habitat-deep waters where Minerals Management may someday consider oil and gas wells. Oil-and-gas extraction brings the threat of environmental contamination as well as increased vessel traffic. Hunting bans haven't made whales safe, says Mate. The greatest threat, he says, is from "loss of their habitat through human activities."

Other researchers are refining their knowledge of endangered humpbacks through a three-year project dubbed YONAH (for Years of the North Atlantic Humpback). YONAH scientists from the United States, Norway, Canada and several other nations are conducting an ocean-wide study that relies on photo identification and tissue samples. The scientists are collecting samples of skin and blubber from humpbacks with crossbows that lob arrows with special biopsy tips.

To Richard Lambertsen, a specialist in aquatic animal medicine at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the crossbow is a "stone ax" when compared to his new high-seas pneumatic gun that blasts a titanium-tipped biopsy dart for distances of 30 to 60 yards. A tether allows scientists to pull home a 5-gram core of whale.

Whale lives may be saved by taking to the air in that most whalelike of flying machines, a blimp. James Hain, an oceanographer with Associated Scientists at Woods Hole, a small research organization, is testing helium-filled airships to observe right whales in their winter calving ground off Florida and Georgia. In this area of heavy ship traffic, he hopes to learn how whales react to vessels. Juvenile right whales may be most at risk of collisions. "They may be the teenagers of the whale world," says Hain. "They're rambunctious, they're horsing around."

Less glamorous, but just as important to understanding whale life, are James Mead's stranded-whale studies, established at the Smithsonian in 1972. Over the years, he has conducted postmortems on about two dozen large whales, and on more than 1,000 porpoises and dolphins. He has learned to rely, he says with a chuckle, on "judicious employment of young biologists" to spare himself the job's least appealing part-immersion in "large masses of rotting flesh."

The corpses of large whales have frequently borne scars from ship collisions and entanglement with fishing nets-or both. With findings of "distressing amounts" of toxic PCBs and DDT in whale tissues, he wonders about effects of sublethal long-term exposure to pollutants on whales and the whole ecosystem. "There is some evidence that chronic intoxication from any poison leads to progressive failure of the immune system," he says. His grim conviction: "I wouldn't want to live in the oceans, because the oceans these days are in many ways worse than life on land."

Ocean pollution could be tipping the balance toward more whale deaths. Industrial pollutants such as PCBs may render whales more susceptible to infections and illness; sick whales, in turn. might be more likely to be snared in nets or be run over by ships.

"Take a 'for instance,' " Mead says. "A juvenile humpback gets a bellyache and is wandering around in the coastal waters, spending more time thinking about this bellyache than about where he is going. All of a sudden a freighter appears on his port bow and he gets confused and he winds up getting run over by the freighter and drifting up."

Even small craft can disrupt whale lives. Deborah Glockner-Ferrari, studying humpbacks off the Hawaiian island of Maui, credits the rising popularity of thrill craft-jet skis, parasails and other recreational water vehicles that can annoy cetaceans-for a steep, decade-long decline in her sightings of mothers and calves in near-shore waters.

The Center for Marine Conservation's Nina Young worked in the mid-1980s as a naturalist on tour boats cruising Cape Cod's Stellwagen Bank-and she remembers how "it could get pretty crazy," with as many as 6 whale-watch boats and 20 private boats around a whale.

Stellwagen's humpback whales, a notably gregarious species, seemed unbothered by the weekend armada. Not so the fin whales Young observed. Huge animals that can stretch 80 or more feet in length and weigh as many tons, they sometimes reacted to boat traffic by swimming evasively and spending as little time as possible at the surface. Making fewer blows, or respirations, during their brief surfacings, the whales were short of oxygen and thus restricted to shallow dives. To Young's experienced eye, the fin whales exhibited "that classic `I'm getting out of here' behavior."

Whale-watch advocates point out that the young industry pumps money into seaside communities and inspires whale protection. One survey by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society found that whale watchers worldwide spend $318 million a year. Often operations hire scientists who interpret whale behavior for customers and get a chance to conduct their own research.

"A great deal of what we know about whale behavior comes from commercial whale-watch activities," says Karen Steuer, a staff member on the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife Conservation and the Environment, and before that a working naturalist on whale-watching trips. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has sent agents undercover on whale-watch boats to ensure animals are not being harassed. In August, the agency also proposed regulations requiring boats to maintain a minimum 100-yard distance from whales; aircraft-sometimes also used in commercial whale-watching--would be prohibited from approaching nearer than 1,000 feet.

The government agency has also come up with a plan that would protect whales and other marine mammals from entanglement with commercial fishing gear, aspects of which may draw fire from conservationists when the Marine Mammal Protection Act is reauthorized by Congress this year. Passed 20 years ago-in part because large numbers of porpoises were drowning in nets used by tuna fishermen-the act prohibits the "take" (including harassment, capture or killing) of ocean mammals. At the same time, the law allows exceptions for animals killed in the course of certain activities, including commercial fishing.

"Nearly 60 percent of all right whales have scars around their tails that indicate at some point in their lives they were entangled with fishing gear," says the New England Aquarium's Scott Kraus. Gill nets set in waters from the Gulf of Maine to the California coast snare not just sharks and swordfish, but also at times endangered fin, gray, humpback and other whales.

Using knives, hooks and muscle, Jon Lien, a professor at Newfoundland's Memorial University, has helped free more than 600 humpbacks caught in cod nets and traps since 1978 along the northeastern continental shelf; Lien has also strung noisy alarms along nets. In Alaska's Prince William Sound, where killer whales remove sablefish from long-lines, fishermen have tried acoustic harassment of the whales, with little success. Frustrated fishermen have also hurled explosives and fired rifles at the animals; killer whales have been spied with bullet holes through dorsal fins.

The snaring of hapless whales in fishing gear angers conservationists. But to fishermen, whales can seem coddled. "There's an anger in the industry," says Richard Gutting, vice president for government relations at the National Fisheries Institute. "We have totally protected marine mammals for 20 years, and a lot of the populations are recovering. Down the road there will be some real problems if we continue to totally protect marine mammals-including whales. We will have to realize we are losing a lot of food production out of the ocean. Because they are competitors."

The extent of that competition remains unknown. "Most of these data we just flat don't have," says Howard Bra-ham, director of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.

The National Marine Fisheries Service plan would allow fishermen to incidentally kill a predetermined number of whales (agency experts call the number a Potential Biological Removal, or PBR, for the quantity of whales that can be taken from a population without significantly affecting it). Fishing associations would also be required to develop conservation plans to protect marine mammals. The NMFS plan, "doesn't put a smile on everyone's face, admits an agency biologist. Says Nina Young, "It's coming to the point that a scientist is going to need a permit to go out and disentangle a whale for a fisherman,"

The government's PBRs are only one of many solutions proposed to ease conflicts between people and whales. A 1991 federal recovery plan for right whales suggests everything from breakaway links on fishing gear to the distribution of video tapes to harbor pilots in areas with whale-ship conflicts. Even with help, they need plenty of time. Their population is so small and their rate of reproduction so slow, they may need another 150 years to advance from endangered status to merely threatened.

Repairing damage to the ocean ecosystem itself will also be a slow process. Says the Smithsonian's James Mead, "We are dealing with a system that takes a long time to react." In 1987-88, Mead investigated the still incompletely understood die-off of some 2,500 bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) along the U.S. Atlantic Coast. The main foods eaten by the dolphins in that region are sea trout, croaker and spot.

"We eat those too," says Mead. "We share the food of Tursiops." And then he asks the obvious question: "If the chronic ingestion of 'whatever' led to the immune system of the Tursiops breaking down, what has it done to humans?" It is just the sort of question an alien biologist from space might want to look into down at the county morgue.

Writer Michael Lipske lives in Washington, D.C. Photographer Flip Nicklin's recent book is With the Whales (North Word, 1990).

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