Ship Strike = (Another) Dead Humpback

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Every loss is a sad one, but this one is especially so:

They called her Istar.

The humpback whale that washed up dead on an East Quogue beach last week was well known to scientists and the whale community as a fertile mother tracked since 1976, researchers said this week.

Istar, named after Ishtar, an ancient Babylonian fertility goddess, mothered at least 11 calves, including two in consecutive years, 1988 and 1989, something previously undocumented, said Jooke Robbins, senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

“I won’t lie, it’s not really easy,” Robbins said. “Istar is just an individual known for so long, as such a productive whale. She’s a big favorite for so many people.”

Istar was at least 41 years old, measured at 48 feet long and was estimated to weigh 30 to 35 tons, researchers said.

While her cause of death is still under investigation, the whale had massive cranial damage consistent with a ship strike, said Kimberly Durham, rescue program director of the Riverhead Foundation, which performed the necropsy.

I wonder what was on that ship. How important was it? How slow would ships have to go in the whale corridors to reduce the lethality of ship strikes? What would that cost?

Loving The Blue Whale Too Much

First we hunted them to near extinction, and now scientists estimate there are perhaps 25,000 blue whales left on the planet. They are magnificent creatures, and most humans hope their population will grow and thrive.

But human love for a species is often dangerous, because when humans love something they want to see it, be with it, and experience it. They put the human experience, and human desires, over the animals’ experience and the animals’ needs. Sometimes that means putting animals in zoos and marine parks. Sometimes it means invading wild habitats and disturbing natural life rhythms. And it seems that is what could be happening with blue whales, particularly in the waters off Sri Lanka (ironically because the end of a civil war is making tourism safer).

Throw in commercial shipping, which is not as deadly as actual whaling, but deadly nevertheless, and you have humans–despite their recent love for blue whales–once again putting pressure on a dwindling population.

Here’s the New York Times, putting it all together:

The problem is particularly troublesome here in Sri Lanka, where a largely unstudied population of blue whales, possibly numbering in the thousands, has come under increasing pressure from commercial shipping and from a boom in unregulated whale-watching boats.

Because these waters are poorly monitored, scientists do not know for sure whether ship strikes are on the rise. But the whale’s death in April was already the sixth of the year, according to news reports. In one grisly encounter in March, a blue whale was found draped over the bow of a container vessel in the harbor in the capital, Colombo, 90 miles north of this beach resort. Last year, some 20 whale carcasses (not all of them blue whales) were seen around the island, according to Arjan Rajasuriya, a research officer with the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency in Colombo. It is not known how many of the deaths resulted from ship strikes.

“These strikes likely represent only a portion of the likely true mortality,” said John Calambokidis, a whale researcher in Olympia, Wash., who documents ship strikes off the West Coast of the United States. Because blue whales often sink soon after they are struck, most such deaths go unrecorded, and Dr. Calambokidis says the true number “could be 10 or 20 times” the number seen.

Fifteen miles off the southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and whales are known to swim regularly inside them. But some scientists believe that the increase in whale watching could be forcing whales to seek food farther out, pushing them into the big ships’ path.

“I’m afraid the whales are being harassed by the whale-watching boats and that this could affect their movement,” said Asha de Vos, a whale researcher here.

The result, in the photo taken by Madzak Radjainia and published as part of the NY Times story, is dead whales floating near Sri Lanka, with ship strike injuries (they published a great video report as well).

Dead Blue Whale

It doesn’t have to be this way. Some day humans may gain the wisdom to realize we need to give much greater weight to the needs of other species, even if that means compromising on human desires and needs. An example would be accepting that even when we love a species we don’t have the right to disturb it in its natural habitat, and that doing so can do real harm.

Inadvertent Whaling

An interesting study recently confirmed something sad that I have suspected for years: that despite the fact that humans are actively trying to protect whales in the North Atlantic, human culture and human lifestyles are so intrusive and damaging that we still end up killing whales.

This comes from a story in Nature:

Human activity is still killing right whales, one of the most endangered animals in the ocean. An analysis of four decades of whale deaths shows that attempts to prevent them have not had a demonstrable impact.

Only around 460 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are thought to be swimming the waters off the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. The governments of both countries have implemented several measures to protect whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear or being hit by ships, such as the US ‘ship strike rule’ that limits vessel speeds in certain areas. That rule came into force in 2008 and is due to expire next year.

Marine-mammal researchers Julie van der Hoop and Michael Moore, both at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and their colleagues, analysed all known deaths of eight species of large whale in the northwest Atlantic between 1970 and 2009. During that time 122 right whales died, along with 473 humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), 257 fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and scores of whales of other species. When the authors were able to assign a cause of death, ‘human interactions’ was the most common, appearing in 67% of cases. Entanglement in fishing gear was the main cause of death in this category.

The protection measures seem to have had no impact on whale deaths, according to the study published online in Conservation Biology1. Although several of the rules were implemented only towards the end of the study period, Moore still admits that the finding is “hugely disappointing”.

We can decry the age of whaling, in which humans were wiping whales out one after the other. But that was an age when the killing was both intentional and highly technological. It’s almost scarier to think that the way humans live today means that whales die, even though we (mostly) don’t want them to. In other words, there is something deeply wrong about the way in which we live today.

The main culprit appears to be our fishing practices, which are egregious enough in terms of what they do to fish stocks, quite apart from how they affect whales (and all the other species which also become collateral damage).

I feel the same way about industrial fishing as I do about industrial farming, though industrial fishing does not seem to attract the same intense opposition–perhaps because fish are not considered as intelligent and sentient as farm animals. But that certainly doesn’t mean that industrial fishing isn’t as environmentally shortsighted, and criminally wasteful (and in many instances it is cruel, as well).

But whatever you think about the emotional lives of ocean fish, and the moral issues around killing them, it’s hard not to sympathize with whales that get entangled or killed by fishing equipment. And judging from the reaction of this humpback, anything we can do to further limit the damage to whales from fishing would be much appreciated.