I’m back at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport Oregon, part of the Oregon State University campus harboring marine mammal-fisheries-benthic-ocean researchers and students.
The topic: How humans decimated whale populations through hundreds of years of industrial whaling, leaving some species and populations on the brink of extinction. But despite these impacts, many whale populations have made remarkable recoveries, demonstrating the ability of threatened and endangered species to bounce back from intense human pressure.
The presenter: Joshua Stewart, a new faculty member at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, PhD from Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
The running joke with Stewart last night was he WAS not Bradley Cooper, and so he let people know not to be too disappointed that instead of that overpaid undertalented Holly-Dirt guy (my phrasing) we were in for a presentation by a nerd, a passionate whale guy, and young at that!
He’s been focusing on the Southern Right whale and the Antarctic minke, but his interest is also around the many species of whales/cetaceans not recovering despite whaling and hunting of those species having been stopped decades ago.
The history of whaling as a commercial endevour goes back to the Basques, a thousand years ago, gooing after the Right Whale, so called southern Right whale. Then after a few centuries with simple boats, things got going, and in fact the Basques went for Northern Right whales with larger ships. They had a 500 year monopoly on commercial whaling.
The big push in whaling occurred in the 1700s, Nantucket, and that included the big ships of Moby Dick fame. Then, into the 1800s and 1900s the ships had steam engines, and alas the range for these whalers extended far and wide. Processing ships were introduced, with diesel engines and factories on board, and with the adevent of massive industrialization for the two “great” wars, the whalers got explosive harpoons and fast engines.
So, whereas for more than 700 years the blue and fin whales were too fast for the simple whalers, hence they were not being decimated by the whalers of that age. In the 1950s, however, as Stewart stated, more than three million whales were killed, which he calls the largest cull of wild mammales in the world. Many species became “commercially extinct,” i.e. the few numbers left in these species were not profitable enough for the big commercial operations.That included blues, sperms and fin whales.
I cut my teeth in the early 1970s on fighting whaling, that is, the commercial whaling tyranny. That effort globally — stopping whaling — super-charged the first Earth Day:
We are now 53 years later, and guys like Stweart, 35, is looking at declining whale populations, including the Southern Resident Orcas:
There are 73 (total) of these distinct salmon eaters left, and the issues around climate change, habitat degradation and their prey availablity play into any researcher’s tool chest. Many of these iconic animals generations ago were part of the live capture “industry” to supply killer whales to theme parks.
The issue around sea traffic, the noise from that traffic, the pollutants in that Salish Sea (Vancouver and Seattle area), the food stock (Chinook salmon) and climate change play into the degradation of the Southern Residents, as their offspring are coming out smaller, stressed, and a skinny whale triples the probability of dying in the first year of life.
There were around fifty of us there, March 23, and the auditorium allowed for the first time the beer and wine drinkers to bring in their libations. There were fellow researchers in attendence, as well as students, both graduate and undergraduate. As far as the public, it seems that most people going to these talks are associated with academia or marine research. As I point out time and time again — where are the K12 kids? This was a 6 pm event. Stewart’s slide show/Power Point was good, and he is young (he kept alluding to the fact he is doing research on the backs of oldtimers still working as researchers). This is an existential crisis in my mind. Having like minded, fellow marine wonks at an event is NOT enough in 2023. It’s barely anything, really. There are no outreach programs for K12 and families and fisher folk, and since this is after school hours, there seems to be no way in hell of getting high schools students who are interested in science and math and engineering in general to come out to these events. America is a cultural waste land, and one with dream hoarders ruling over the rest of us.
This is the echo chamber that is science, in my estimation. I can’t fault the students there from OSU, or the retired faculty or the active faculty, but this sort of event I have attended in the hundreds over the course of 50 years as a diver, then student of marine sciences, journalist, writer, educator and sustainability “wonk.”
There are no avenues now in 2023 built-in to go above and beyond, and surely, the happy hours/social hour from 5 to 6 pm could have been an hour where students got a little tour of the Hatfield which does have a public access educational center:
Yes, we have the Oregon Aquarium, a commercial marine park of sorts. And the Hatfield Visitor Center does get public attendance, but the K12 schools here in Lincoln county need to do outreach. We also need crab and fisher folk here to to have an open discussion with these wonky folk like Joshua Stewart who may or man not agree with the mitigation ideas, including limiting catches, closing seasons, biodigradable lines, and more.
Here’s my piece on the Oregon Aquarium: Depth of Experience? 20 years with Oregon Coast Aquarium gives CEO deep blue view of world
And, I’ve covered many of the researchers at Hatfield and in our Coastal area:
I am finding many of my stories I did for Oregon Coast Today have vanished from the sister company, Discover Our Coast. This is disturbing, the culling of my work, as always. However, I have a book with all those stories captured in their original form, here: Coastal People inside a Deep Dive: stories about people living on the Central Coast and other places in Oregon
Back to Stewart, AKA “not” Bradley Cooper: His work looks at the last two decades of declines with spring chinook salmon, through the San Juan Islands up to Vancouver Island. That’s an 85 percent decline in those salmon. As the orcas’ food stock, that means their lives are now in peril because of all those other factors, including food availability.
Here on the Coast we have the iconic gray whales, coming from breeding grounds in Mexico and Central America, making their way to the Arctic. We have whale watching as one tourist attraction, as the gray whales hang out here and push volumes of water into the sand to eat the anthropods that make small tubes as their feeding ritual. The only whale — a baleen whale, filter feeder, that is — which does this sort of feeding is “our” gray whale.
Here’s another piece: Gray Whales Are Dying: Starving to Death Because of Climate Change
And another: Understanding the ocean’s web of life
And another: Experts paint sobering potential for sea change
So, those gray whales, while in a state of recovery and delisted from the Environmental Species Act list, are still experiencing massive die offs, and the food they get in the Arctic is losing its own biomass, that is, the body weight has declined by one-third in the last fifty years.
So, like orca, gray whales are being studied now with drone photography, and the body shapes can be tracked over entire lifetimes. The lower the weight, the tougher it is on the individual and species in general.
Line entanglements are a big issue, as fishers use lobster and crab “pots” in the tens of thousands on our coast and east coast, with a buoy at the surface. Whales get entangled, and some live days, months and even a year with the gear in tow.
And, ship strikes are becoming a bigger and bigger issue not just on the USA’s coast, but worldwide.
Obviously, if there are more Fraser River spring chinook salmon, then there will be a healthier Southern Resident Killer Whale population. But fish stocks are decling, and so many other factors play into the marine mammals’ overall health worldwide.
Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all. Why then do you try to ‘enlarge’ your mind? Subtilize it.
–Hermann Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 74 – “The Sperm Whale’s Head”
While gray whales were almost hunted to extinction, with 1,000 left, they have been delisted from the ESA — now estimated to be around 20,000 total population. However, researchers like Joshua are looking at these UME’s, Unusual Mortality Events.
2019-2023 Gray Whale Unusual Mortality Event along the West Coast and Alaska: Since January 1, 2019, elevated gray whale strandings have occurred along the west coast of North America from Mexico through Alaska. This event has been declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME).
There are so many issues that marine mammals face in this industrialized, highly toxic and waste heavy modern society. Lobster/crab gear entanglements are possibly a small problem when compared to the microplastic now found in the zooplanton’s, anthropods’ and the whale’s bodies. Add to that mercury and PCBs, and we have a triple toxic soup for the mammals.
We can imagine what the carrying capacity is for one whale species, and these researchers have “cool” jobs when they get to go out to sea and chase whales and tag them and photograph them and collect their feces, for sure. Here, yet another piece from my work attending these Science on Tap Hatfield events: Whales and People: A Tragedy! (note: you will see two live links referenced here in this story, which are now no longer available; I have a sneaking suspicion that the university’s thugs, PR spinners, got to the publisher of Discover Our Coast, to knock out all articles tied to OSU that I wrote!)
At the end of the talk, I asked Joshua to look at the glass half EMPTY. A few in the crowd were not happy about “ending on a negative note” (Yikes, this is academic in a nutshell). His biggest fear is climate change, which is warming seas, that is, where certain areas of the ocean are heating up faster than others. Sea ice is melting earlier and capping over later (according to the past 80 years or more data), and food stocks for marine mammals are become less and less.
This is the continuing story of extinction, and the supreme right of homo sapiens consumopithecus to rule the world, rule all species, and rule even a majority of our own species in this criminal and corrupting and colluding Capitalism. And, well, green washing and green pornography have taken center stage, man, in the so called sustainability arena. I was head of many sustainability initiatives. Here, a long time ago: Sustained Discussion And, from a standing column I headed up, Metro Talk: Facing uncertainty, the Inland Empire needs more than a global warming bucket list
I showed many a class as a college teacher, Empty Oceans Empty Nets
The film is 2002!
So much work put into research and documentary making. But is it all echo chamber, now that the world is run totally by banks, hedge funds, Blackrock, Vanguard, Pharma-Media-Military-Congressional-Mining-Oil-Gas-Prison-Insurance-Surveillance-IT-AR-Digital Complex? Empty Nets, Emptying Oceans, Farming the Sea, and Soylent Green is People?
On a happy note, the crowd at Hatfield drank locally produced IPA’s, Oregon wine and locally backed pasteries. There was not mention of Greta’s honory doctorate from Helsinki, and Putin was not blamed for the the UME’s.
All was well at OSU, as if the world outside was outside of the bubble that is academia. Your choice, Stewart or Cooper!