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How We Can Protect the Future of Whales

A whale expert argues we all share in saving these magnificent sentient beings.

Whales are magnificent animals. They attract global attention for a wide variety of reasons and many species are on the brink of extinction. Thus, when I read veterinarian and marine scientist Michael J. Moore's new book We Are All Whalers: The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility, I immediately wanted to know more about his important and optimistic message.1 I'm pleased Michael could take the time to answer a few questions. Here's what he had to say about his forward-looking book and riveting postscripts where two different fatally entangled whales tell their life stories.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write We Are All Whalers?

MM: After some years of examining dead right whales for the U.S. government to establish how each animal died, I began promising each whale that I would tell its story. Each animal had died a unique death, but there were two major themes: vessel collision and fishing gear entanglement. The latter was particularly distressing in that on average, a lethal entanglement takes six months to kill a right whale.

To document each event required a careful record of what we knew of the animal’s history, documenting the pathology present, and trying to get a complete understanding of how its demise had begun, and ended. There was an obvious message in terms of the risk of the species becoming extinct, but there was also a major concern about the individual welfare of the animal. No hunt, nor food industry would ever permit such long-term suffering in a land mammal in plain sight. Yet here was whale upon whale suffering a highly drawn-out agonizing death. Hence the book.

University of Chicago Press, with permission.
Source: University of Chicago Press, with permission.

MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

MM: The book traces my diverse experiences that led me to spend time on beaches with dead whales. As an undergraduate, I assisted with a whale behavioral ecology project in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. I got to see how whales live, feed, behave, and migrate within their broader ecosystem. It was a wonder-filled experience.

I then trained as a veterinarian, and as a scientist gaining a Ph.D. in biological oceanography. This set up a seesaw of conflict in my brain—the analyst scientist balanced by the advocate veterinarian. The conflict was the extent to which I could and should tell the story of how these whales were dying, how they were in pain and suffering. Ultimately, I resolved that anthropogenic trauma begets and deserves anthropomorphism.

The book ends with two postscripts, where two different fatally entangled whales tell their life stories. The first time I read one of them to a Zoom audience, there was a stunned silence. I learned later that they were having a hard time keeping it together. After a few more similar situations, I began to realize that the anthropomorphic liberties I had taken as a scientist, while the veterinarian did his job to make it clear how the animals were suffering, and what had to be done to avoid repeat events like this, were perhaps fully justified and effective in their messaging.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

MM: My sincere hope is that book is relevant way beyond folks that study marine mammals. There is a significant sector of the public that enjoys whale watching, and such people are reading the book. I doubt it is an enjoyable book as such, but I have heard from readers that can’t put it down. One described it as “a very sad love story.”

My goal in writing it was to give the reader a sense of what is going on out at sea where most of us don’t have a clue. Out of sight is out of mind. The reality is that each and every one of us is creating an economic driver for this trauma of whales and other animals by creating markets for goods delivered by sea (and the resultant vessel collisions with whales), and for trap-caught seafood (and the consequent rope entanglements).

Thus, my ultimate, perhaps quixotic goal is for all of us to read it, for we all enable those markets. Even vegans use materials transported by sea. In gaining a new perspective from the book, they will incrementally bring new pressures to bear on politicians, governmental regulators, and industrialists to source such products ethically. Slowing ships down so whales can better evade them, and harvesting seafood with systems that avoid rope in the water column.

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your essays and what are some of your major messages?

MM: Veterinarians are trained to procure a history of their patients—all the relevant information to the concern at hand. In the case of whales that have been traumatized, this would include their age, any prior information about their health and disease, and any circumstances relevant to understanding the current problem.

This, along with a careful physical examination, and further analyses, can lead to a list of potential, and hopefully final diagnoses. A diagnosis is key: it can suggest a specific treatment, and ultimately a prevention strategy.

Meanwhile, scientists are trained to ask questions about a topic, gather data to test them, analyze the results, and make conclusions about the initial premise. The book weaves my story in regards to my dual training. How I grew to recognize the trauma evident from vessel collisions and entanglement, and especially the serious animal welfare issues. How this led to a system to enable disentanglement efforts through the use of sedatives to make them more approachable, and most especially how to develop systems that can remove rope from the water column.

Meanwhile, the scientist in me undertook a series of studies designed to better understand North Atlantic right whale health in the context of human-caused trauma. How their growth and body condition were affected by trauma, and the knock-on effects to their ability to reproduce and wean healthy calves. These threads were tightly woven together, with the science questions predicated by the veterinary concerns.

MB: What lessons can people learn from your perspective about the collective responsibilities for interfering in the lives of whales and helping them along?

MM: Everything that we as individual consumers do directly impacts planet earth. In this case, our procurement of goods moved by vessels risks their colliding with whales, and consumption of trap-caught seafood enables entanglement risk. Politicians, and supply chains respectively, depend on the wants and needs of voters and consumers. Thus, if we want to do the right thing, we must demand it.


In conversation with Michael Moore.

1) Michael Moore is a veterinary scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. His research encompasses the physiology and pathology of marine mammals. He has studied the effects of trauma from the shipping and fishing industries on their survival and welfare. He is currently working with stakeholders to reduce threats of such trauma in large whales. You can read more about Michael here and his book here.

Bekoff, Marc. Secrets of the Whales: Inner Worlds of Joy, Pain, and Love.

_____. The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins: We Are Not Alone.

_____. Make No Mistake, Orca Mom J-35 and Pod Mates Are Grieving.