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Nature Notes: Whales, a Story of Change

Ed Robinson
February 2, 2021

The history of Maine is inextricably tied to the rich waters off our coastline. Yet the sea has always delivered mixed blessings to our state. The ocean was a source of vast amounts of food and great wealth, but many lives were lost at sea down the centuries. Native peoples long harvested marine species, benefitting from the nutritional bounty. Early accounts of European expeditions to our coast reported that creatures like cod were so thick in our waters that you could readily fill a ship with five-foot-long fish. As the region’s population grew, seemingly limitless ocean stocks invited the exploitation of one species after another, inevitably leading to conflict over the remaining resources.

Long before the Industrial Age, the six great rivers of Maine poured billions of gallons of clean, nutrient-rich water into the Gulf of Maine. Cold waters of the Labrador current mixed with the warmer flows of the Gulf Stream, resulting in ideal habitat for a wondrous food chain from the smallest creatures to the mighty whales. The few indigenous people living along the coast could harvest the food they needed with little impact on the ecosystem, the essence of sustainability. The natives’ reach was limited by their tools and small boats so the massive fish and mammals living in deeper offshore waters prospered as they had for millions of years.

“Whale” comes from an old English word for “large sea fish.” Of course, whales are not fish but mammals, warm-blooded creatures that have lungs, not gills, so whales must surface regularly for air. Species such as the sperm whale can dive thousands of feet in search of giant squid and other prey, and they can remain submerged for up to 90 minutes. When they rise to the surface, whales first exhale through specialized nostrils called “blow holes” with a loud rush of warm, steamy air called a “spout.” They breathe in through the blow hole before going underwater again. The females, called “cows,” deliver a single calf in warm waters near tropical areas. The calf is sustained for a year or so on rich semi-solid milk that the cow spurts from her mammary gland into the calf’s mouth. The milk has a very high fat content to promote the development of blubber so the calf can tolerate cold waters encountered during migrations closer to polar regions.

North Atlantic Right Whale (Photo from iStock)

It may seem odd, but whales were once land-based creatures. Their closest cousin on land today is the water-loving hippopotamus. Approximately 50 million years ago the whales’ ancestors began an evolutionary change that allowed them to live in the ocean full time. They gradually lost their hind legs and their front legs changed into flippers. Those flippers are used only for steering, with the forward movement of the whale caused by the pulsing up and down of its lower body and powerful fluked tail. At some point in this evolution, the forward spine of the whale became fused, allowing more power for locomotion and eliminating the ability of the whale to turn its head from side to side. This is offset by the location of their relatively small eyes placed on each side of the head.

About 10 million years after returning to the seas, whales split into two broad orders, the baleen whales (Mysticeti) and the toothed whales (Odontoceti). The passive baleen whales have twin blow holes and no teeth, rather they use a series of keratinaceous baleen plates to sieve plankton, krill and small fish out of the ocean water as it passes through their mouths. Toothed whales are more aggressive predators, using their sensitive sonar to find and attack large fish, squid and other creatures for a meal. Baleen whales are larger on average, including the right, humpback, gray, fin and minke whales plus the mightiest creature on earth, the blue whale. I remember my schoolboy awe at learning that blue whales can reach 100 feet and 190 tons! Toothed whales like the sperm and beaked whales are still sizable creatures, up to 70 feet long and 80 tons.

Scientists have established that whales use sophisticated communication among themselves. The sonar signals issued by hunting sperm whales can reach 20,000 watts and be detected many miles away. Humpbacks are famed for the wide range of melodic clicks they make, often recorded and enjoyed by humans as songs of the sea. Even more provocative is evidence that captive whales like the belugas strive to mimic the human speech of their caregivers, using a cadence that matches what the whales are hearing. This has been interpreted as a determined, intelligent effort on the part of the whales to communicate with us, since their own language is so different from our own.

To fully understand the story of whales, we need to learn about whaling. The practice of harvesting whales goes far back in time, with the first known records being petroglyphs in South Korea dating from around 6,000 B.C. Down the ages, indigenous peoples relied on capturing the occasional minke or pilot whale as a vital source of food, oil and other necessities. The oil was especially valuable for heat and light before the availability of kerosene. In the middle portion of the 1600s, European traders contracted with tribes like the Shinnecock Indians to harvest porpoises and small whales from near-shore waters to support the growing need for meat in the markets.

Humans have always been driven to overcome Earth’s creatures, the bigger the better (e.g., elephants, tigers and bison). Imagine the awe-inspiring impact of seeing your first humpback whale plowing high out of the water close to your tiny ship, a habit termed breaching!

Commercial whaling was first established as a major industry in the 1500s by the Spanish and French, so it was inevitable that the business would eventually attract investment in New England. According to the Penobscot Marine Museum, as early as 1830, whaling ships from Portland, Wiscasset, Bucksport and Bath made the long and perilous journey to the Pacific Ocean to pursue species like the sperm whale. The great whales offered vast wealth to the owners of sailing ships that survived years’ long journeys to return to port laden with their goods.

Maine has long been focused on fishing and was rather distant from the major whale migration routes, so it was a relatively minor center of whaling activity compared to more southern ports like New Bedford and Nantucket. By the 19th century only a few ships from Vinalhaven, Winter Harbor, Prospect Harbor and Mount Desert Island still followed the whales. Still, the slaughter continued and the New England fleet reached a peak of more than 550 ships by the middle 1800s. Whalebone found its way into ladies’ corsets, buggy whips, petticoats, umbrella ribs and collar stiffeners. Whale oil was used for illumination, lubrication and perfume manufacturing. Scrimshaw art became popular as sailors carved wonderful scenes on the ivory teeth recovered from sperm whales and others.

Whaling became a highly competitive industry by the late 1800s, leading to the design of large factory ships that could harvest and continually process large numbers of whales and offload their catch to smaller ships, and changing the economics of the industry. The last recorded voyage of a New England whaling ship was the John. R. Mantra out of New Bedford in 1927.

When stocks of whales were depleted in traditional locations, the large ships penetrated new areas deep into equatorial and polar waters in search of more and more harvests. By the late 1930s, more than 50,000 whales were harvested each year without regard to the impact on their populations.

Fortunately, there were enough early conservationists sounding the alarm that action was taken to limit the slaughter before it was too late. Cooperation among countries began to regulate whaling as early as 1931 and led to the signing of an International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946. The stated goal of the convention was “…proper conservation of whale stocks and…the orderly development of the whaling industry.”

Eventually an International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created under ICRW to decide quotas for whale harvests and to collect scientific evidence relevant to the industry. The IWC attempts to regulate the harvests of 13 of the larger whale species. Unfortunately, a few of the more active whaling countries resisted the regulatory efforts of the IWC and continued to harvest whales even when the evidence suggested some species were at risk of extinction. A major problem has always been that the IWC has no control over the whaling activities of non-member countries, and has little policing power over its members other than public shaming and the threat of expulsion. When countries like Russia are caught dramatically under reporting their harvests of whales this limits the accuracy of the IWC’s scientific studies and the value of its attempts at regulation.

As whale populations continued to fall, due to a number of factors including whaling, things finally came to a head. In 1982 IWC members voted in favor of a global moratorium on commercial harvest of most of the large whales after the 1984-85 season. This was resisted vociferously by several countries and numerous violations resulted in ensuing years. Despite that, over the following 24 years populations of most of the large whales began to recover. In 2010 this triggered a discussion by IWC about lifting the moratorium, but the proposal was defeated. Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to advocate for more whaling but opponents have offered only to allow them to continue whaling with smaller quotas and close supervision to prevent over harvesting. As you would expect, many whaling opponents are determined to end all commercial whaling, leaving only small subsistence harvests by indigenous peoples.

In 1981 my wife and I spent a few days in beautiful Reykjavik, Iceland. At a local restaurant we were offered a plate of traditional Icelandic foods. The fish jerky and marinated salmon were great, but the brined gull’s egg was awful, unless you like your boiled eggs black and tasting of sulfur and ammonia. Finally, I tried the whale blubber – all I can say is that you probably need to experience a few months adrift on a whaling ship to fully appreciate the taste and texture. So why do Japan, Iceland, Norway and a few others continue to hunt whales in the face of global condemnation

Many complex issues arise in discussing the future of whaling. First comes the issue of ownership, since most whales live their entire lives in the open ocean, beyond territorial waters where a country could legitimately claim the creatures as their own. As we have seen with the scramble to harvest deep sea deposits of valuable minerals or to stake claims to the newly open waters of the Arctic, most countries are highly motivated to establish and retain the right to operate as they see fit. Countries like China and Russia have long sought to push the boundaries of national sovereignty as far from their shores as possible with little regard to the niceties of international agencies like the United Nations, the World Trade Organization or ICRW.
Trying to track creatures like sperm whales that inhabit vast oceans and migrate thousands of miles each year, mostly far from land, is nearly impossible. As a result, there is always room for debate about the accuracy of population statistics that guide the establishment of quotas, especially if you don’t want restrictions on your whaling activities. Japan originally joined the IWC but two years later began harvesting up to 300 whales annually, mostly minke whales. The Japanese have always claimed that the harvests were only for research purposes to collect data to help set quotas, but most countries saw this as a disguised form of commercial whaling. After many years of rancorous debate, Japan withdrew from the IWC in 2019 and began more active whaling.

One of the historic justifications for killing whales was that they were responsible for reducing the population of fish in the sea available for harvest by man. The folks making this argument may have been ignorant of the fact that whales had lived in balance with their environment for millions of years before humans took to whaling. More likely is that these men simply chose to ignore their own role in overfishing the oceans. Recent scientific evidence indicates that whales play an important role in delivering nutrients such as nitrogen from ocean depths to the surface in the form of feces, since their waste is high in nutrients and consumed by many small creatures at the bottom of the food chain. The dispute has risen again in the last couple of years as hundreds of grey whales have died around the Pacific Ocean. Scientists are still trying to determine the cause of these deaths but the condition of the carcasses suggests that many of the whales died of malnutrition. As we have seen with other die-offs of large marine animals, malnutrition weakens the animals and makes them susceptible to disease, stress and predation. The Pacific Ocean has suffered from significant overfishing of species like the herring and anchovy so whale starvation is not a great leap of logic.

Another factor in the modern whaling debate is the growth of animal rights groups dedicated to the protection and research of the ocean giants. Down the ages, humans have been apex predators, gifted with large brains and four flexible limbs that allowed us to rise to the top of the animal kingdom. If food was available, we harvested that food and thought little about it until we chose to hunt again. In recent decades research has opened new windows into the lives of whales, allowing us to understand more about not only their biology but also their communication, social structure and intelligence. For example, scientists have determined that the ratio of brain matter to body mass in belugas and narwhals is second only to humans among mammals. Groups like Save the Whales and the Sea Shepard Conservation Society have challenged the ethics of killing whales in the face of evidence that whales are capable of organized planning, feelings, pain, and other human-like abilities. Their opponents argue that this is simply another case of soft-hearted people ascribing human traits to animals, termed anthropomorphism. The support groups are so fervent in their cause that in 2012 a proposal was made to establish a “Cetacean Bill of Rights” that would list all the whales along with dolphins and porpoises as “non-human persons.” That proposal was unsuccessful.

As always in such debates, the biggest issue for some is tradition – “my people have always harvested this species and you have no right to prevent us from harvesting them.” In many rural societies there is an engrained distrust of bureaucrats trying to exert control over one’s livelihood. Reflect upon the recent battles over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) reduced quotas for New England harvests of cod, herring and shrimp. Imagine telling a room full of lobstermen that they will no longer be allowed to set their traps in the ocean! When you look at things through this lens it is easier to understand why the Japanese and Icelanders have fiercely resisted the moratorium on whaling. Even in the face of scientific evidence that a species is nearing extinction, many people are unwilling to confront the decision to give up traditional practices that have been cultural mainstays forever.

Another factor in all of this is rising activism by indigenous peoples, and growing public belief that native people should be allowed to continue traditional ways of life in recognition of the wrongs inflicted on those natives by later immigrants. For this reason, subsistence whale hunts are allowed under the IWC moratorium in places like Alaska, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Under oversight by groups like the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, annual harvests of beluga and bowhead whales are conducted by nine indigenous communities with an average annual catch under 600 animals. Conservationists have claimed that this is not sustainable, but the IWC Scientific Committee points to data showing that harvesting less than five percent of the population has allowed the whales to expand their numbers.

Maine’s Division of Marine Resources (DMR) says four species of whales are common along our coastline, listed with their maximum length – pilot (20 feet), minke (30 feet) humpback (55 feet) and the massive finback (80 feet). Two other species are occasionally spotted here, the sperm whale (60 feet) and the critically endangered Northern Atlantic right whale (60 feet). In an interesting twist, whales are now very big business with thousands of tourists each summer boarding whale watch cruise ships to journey just 20 miles from port to see whales, porpoises, dolphins and sea birds feeding on sand eels, copepods, plankton and fish. During the season, the likelihood of seeing whales is so high that some cruises guarantee sightings or a free second cruise. On a global scale, whale watching is estimated to employ 13,000 people and generate more than $2 billion in revenue for hard-pressed fishing communities, about eight times the economic impact of commercial whaling.

The North Atlantic right whale is a topic of active discussion in New England these days. The population dropped to only 270 in 1990, far below historic levels, but recovered to 480 in 2011. More recent surveys put the number at just 360 whales, with only 70 breeding age females. Between 2017 and 2020, at least 30 of these whales died from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear (all but one in Canadian waters) and only 22 new calves were reported. The right whales calve off the shores of Georgia and Florida in summer but migrate and feed for extended periods close to the coast of New England.

Because of the imminent risks to this species, NOAA has insisted that lobstermen in Maine change their practices to achieve at least a 50 percent reduction in vertical lines by adding more traps to each line, called trawling up. They also mandated the use of special gear that would cause vertical lines to break at 17,000 pounds of pressure, enough to allow a whale to free itself from lines. The proposed regulations would affect about 25 percent of the state’s licensed lobstermen, those who fish in offshore waters under federal regulation.

With support from DMR Commissioner Keliher, lobstermen have pushed back on the NOAA regulations, claiming that the changes would cause undue hardship when other fishing groups were not asked to assist and no right whales have been injured in Maine waters for years. They also expressed concern that adding more traps to long lines between two buoys would increase the risk of injury from broken lines when hauling heavier lines into the boat.

Similar discussions have been underway in Massachusetts and in December lobstermen there reached an agreement with the state and NOAA. Lobstermen will modify their gear as stipulated and will accept a moratorium on fishing between February 1 and May 15 in most state waters, a time when the right whales tend to congregate in the area. NOAA also implemented two new “slow zones” off Nantucket and New York City and asked all boaters to either reduce their speed or avoid the areas entirely to dramatically lower the risk of ship strikes on the whales. Arthur Sawyer, President of the MA Lobstermen’s Association indicated that MA lobstermen could accept the measures given the situation. The MA lobster industry has an annual value roughly 20 percent of Maine’s ~$500 million figure. Discussions are still in process here in Maine.

Man has had significant impacts upon the whales and, despite the moratorium, there is still great danger throughout the ocean. Large ocean-going vessels make a great deal of noise, particularly those of the Navy that use sonar to search for submarines, and these sounds are highly disruptive to whales, sometimes causing whales to throw themselves onto beaches. Smaller whales are killed in larger numbers by fishing nets than by whaling. Pollution is a growing threat, both in the form of chemicals that are ingested when feeding and plastics that can accumulate and block a whale’s digestive tract, resulting in death. The warming of our oceans and the shrinking polar ice caps are a growing concern for whales that live much of their lives in polar habitats.

The current status of whales is a mix of good and bad news. Humpback whales are returning to the cleaner waters of New York City, with over 300 sightings in one year, far above the three reports in 2011. In Lubeck, ME we enjoyed 30 minutes watching feeding minke whales, part of a population estimated over 100,000 in the North Atlantic. Gray whales were thought to have recovered to their pre-whaling numbers, although the sudden die-offs in the Pacific may change that. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes 86 cetacean species, 40 of them considered to be whales. In 2018 they rated six of the whales as “endangered” (blue, North Atlantic right, North Pacific right and sei) or “vulnerable” (fin and sperm). An additional 21 species could not be ranked because of insufficient population data.

The relationship between man and whale has been a varied and complicated one since the beginning of time. Prehistoric people must have been thrilled to find an edible whale washed up on a beach. Early mariners probably feared the great beasts that dwarfed small fishing boats. The Vikings and indigenous peoples held whales in high regard, celebrating them in stories, songs and art. Most of us know the story of Jonah and the whale from the book of Matthew (12:40) in the New Testament, also found in the Qur’an. No one who read it could forget the stirring tale by Herman Melville, where a cantankerous whaler named Ahab is tormented and finally killed by a “great white whale” named “Moby Dick.” The issue now is what relationship mankind will have with whales in the future, and whether we will bring about their demise or their resurrection.

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.