Why whale poo could be the secret to reversing the effects of climate change

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/08/whale-poo-reverse-climate-change

I have been at the wrong end of a defecating sperm whale: it smells, it’s nutrient rich, and could just save the world
A whale seen under a whalewatching boat in Peninsula Valdez, Argentina.

A whale seen under a whalewatching boat in Peninsula Valdez, Argentina. Photograph: Justin Hofman / Barcroft Media

The first success of the environmental movements of the 1960s was to save the whale. Now, with deep irony, whales may be about to save us with their poo. A new scientific report from the University of Vermont, which gathers together several decades of research, shows that the great whales which nearly became extinct in the 20th century – and are now recovering in number due to the 1983 ban on whaling – may be the enablers of massive carbon sinks via their prodigious production of faeces.

Not only do the nutrients in whale poo feed other organisms, from phytoplankton upwards – and thereby absorb the carbon we humans are pumping into the atmosphere – even in death the sinking bodies of these massive animals create new resources on the sea bed, where entire species exist solely to graze on rotting whale. There’s an additional and direct benefit for humans, too. Contrary to the suspicions of fishermen that whales take their catch, cetacean recovery could “lead to higher rates of productivity in locations where whales aggregate to feed and give birth”. Their fertilizing faeces here, too, would encourage phytoplankton which in turn would encourage healthier fisheries.

Such propositions speak to our own species’ arrogance. As demonstrated in the fantastical geoengineering projects dreamed up to address climate change, the human race’s belief that the world revolves around it knows no bounds. What if whales were nature’s ultimate geoengineers? The new report only underlines what has been suspected for some time: that cetaceans, both living and dead, are ecosystems in their own right. But it also raises a hitherto unexplored prospect, that climate change may have been accelerated by the terrible whale culls of the 20th century, which removed hundreds of thousands of these ultimate facilitators of CO2 absorption. As Greg Gatenby, the acclaimed Canadian writer on whales told me in response to the Vermont report, “about 300,000 blue whales were taken in the 20th century. If you average each whale at 100 tons, that makes for the removal from the ocean of approximately 30m tons of biomass. And that’s just for one species”.

A defecating sperm whale off the coast of Sri Lanka. A defecating sperm whale off the coast of Sri Lanka. Photograph: Andrew Sutton There’s another irony here, too. American whaling, as celebrated in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), declined in part because of the discovery of mineral oil wells in the second half of the 19th century. One unsustainable resource – the whale oil which lit and lubricated the industrial revolution – was replaced by another. By killing so many whales, then turning to carbon-emitting mineral oil, humans created a double-whammy for climate change. (Conversely, and perhaps perversely, some US commentators have claimed that capitalism saved the whales rather than environmentalists. They contend that our use of mineral oil actually alleviated the pressure on whale populations – proof, they say, that human ingenuity has the ultimate power to solve the planet’s problems).

The 10 scientists who jointly contributed to the new paper note the benefits of “an ocean repopulated by the great whales”. Working on a whalewatching boat off Cape Cod last month, I witnessed astonishing numbers of fin whales, humpbacks and minkes feeding on vast schools of sand eels. I watched dozens of whales at a time, co-operatively hoovering up the bait – and producing plentiful clouds of poo in the process. (Having been at the receiving end of a defecating sperm whale, I can testify to its richly odiferous qualities.)

Observers in the Azores have reported similarly remarkable concentrations of cetaceans this summer. And with a 10% increase in humpback calves returning to Australian waters each year, and blue whales being seen in the Irish Sea, a burgeoning global population of cetaceans might not just be good for the whalewatching industry, they may play a significant role in the planet’s rearguard action against climate change.

It would certainly be a generous return on their part, given what we’ve inflicted on them. Indeed, as Melville imagined in his prophetic chapter in Moby-Dick, Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish?, the whale might yet have the last laugh, regaining its reign in a flooded world of the future to “spout his frothed defiance to the skies”.

Makah Want Another Whale

Makah whalers celebrate atop a dead gray whale in Neah Bay after the successful hunt in this May 17, 1999, photo. — Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

Makah whalers celebrate atop a dead gray whale in Neah Bay after the successful hunt in this May 17, 1999, photo. — Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

Makah group marks anniversary of whale hunt (AP)

…Meanwhile, federal officials are in the process of finalizing an environmental review that could lead to another hunt, the Daily News reported. The tribe is currently seeking authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries agency under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to hunt gray whales for subsistence purposes.

In 2012, NOAA scrapped a 2008 draft environmental impact statement of Makah whaling and began a new draft environmental impact statement, after new scientific information found that a group of gray whales that frequents the Washington coast may be different than the 20,000 whales that migrate past the state each year on their way between Alaskan and Mexican waters.

Donna Darm, associate deputy administrator for the NOAA’s west region, said a new statement incorporating that information should be ready for public review by the fall.

“There’s been a lot of new science that we received since the 2008 draft,” Darm told the Daily News Thursday.

That information will not necessarily affect the tribe’s hunt, but it will require that tribal hunters carefully identify what group any future whales they take come from, according to the Daily News.

“Nothing we’ve learned really changes what the tribe has proposed in the first place,” Darm said. “It just changes what we see as far as impacts.”

http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/article/20140517/NEWS/305179987/makah-group-plans-to-mark-whale-hunt-anniversary-saturday-in-neah-bay

….Animal welfare and other groups decried the 1999 killing and later sued to stop the hunts.

Legal challenges then put the whale hunts on hold.

In 2004, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Makah could not obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act until an environmental assessment was prepared.

An illegal whale hunt in 2007 led to the death of gray whale and federal prison sentences for two Makah tribal members, including Johnson.

Makah whalers commemorate 15th anniversary of last legal whale kill

http://www.peninsuladailynews.com/article/20140518/NEWS/305189969/makah-whalers-commemorate-15th-anniversary-of-last-legal-whale-kill

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

Also see:  Makah group plans to mark whale hunt anniversary Saturday in Neah Bay

NEAH BAY –– Fifteen years after returning from their tribe’s last legal whale kill, some members of the crew of Makah whale hunters who led that hunt set out again into the bay aboard the Hummingbird whaling canoe Saturday.

“It gives me chills. It just gives me chills,” said Charlotte Williams King.

Descended from a long line of whalers, King thought of her ancestors as she watched the canoes paddle in Neah Bay.

Her great-grandfather, John “Hiska” McCarty, dove underwater to tie closed the mouths of harpooned whales.

“I didn’t really realize it, but 15 years is a long time,” she said.

Saturday’s paddle, which included a chase canoe, was organized by the Makah Whaling Commission.

It commemorated the anniversary of the tribe’s successful whale hunt on May 17, 1999. It was the first time in 50 years that the Makah had harpooned a whale, and it happened aboard Hummingbird.

Members of the 1999 hunt crew led by Capt. Wayne Johnson were Theron Parker, Mike Steves, Darrell Markishtum, Glenn Johnson, Keith Johnson, Arnie Hunter, Franklin Wilson, Bruce Gonzelas, Dan Greene, Gordon Parker, Andy Noel, Donald H. Swan and Greg Arnold.

Most were aboard Hummingbird on Saturday.

Keith Johnson, president of the whaling commission, recalled the controversy that surrounded the 1999 kill of a gray whale, nicknamed “May,” whose skeleton now hangs in the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay.

“Last time we had a whaling crew in that [canoe], those terrorists, those eco-terrorists, that were out there in their Zodiacs waking our boat and throwing smoke canisters at us,” Keith Johnson remembered.

The last whale killed by Makah tribal members was in 2007, when a group of five illegally shot dead a gray whale.

Members of the 2007 crew were Wayne Johnson, Parker, Noel, Gonzales and William Secor Sr.

Wayne Johnson served five months in federal prison and Noel 90 days for their roles in the kill.

Hummingbird was retired in 2006 after it capsized, killing Joseph Andrew “Jerry” Jack, a hereditary chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht tribe of Vancouver Island, during an InterTribal Canoe Journey.

Some had called for Hummingbird to be burned, Keith Johnson said, saying it had been cursed.

“You don’t burn a whaling canoe,” he said Saturday. “You bless it.”

The Makah voluntarily stopped hunting gray whales in the 1920s when populations diminished. Gray whales were listed as endangered species in 1970.

When the species was taken off the list in 1994, the Makah worked to resume subsistence hunting.

In the 15 years since the legal kill, the tribe’s right to hunt whales, guaranteed in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, has been embroiled in court reviews over science.

After being allowed to hunt in 1998 and 1999,which ended in the killing of one whale, whale hunts were stopped shortly thereafter by a federal court order saying the Makah needed an environmental impact statement to obtain a waiver from the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The International Whaling Commission in 2007 granted the tribe the right to kill as many as 20 whales over five years — with no more than five in a single year — but it still must get a federal waiver to conduct a hunt.

“We have judges that are animal rights activists that will do anything to put a road block in front of our treaty right to hunt whales,” Keith Johnson said.

“Just leave us alone.”

Conservationists say they are pleased that it’s been 15 years since the last legal hunt.

“We feel differently about the 15th anniversary,” said Margaret Owen, who formed Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales with her husband, Chuck, to speak against the tribe’s whale hunts.

“There’s 60 whales that could have been killed in that time,” Owens said.

A draft environmental impact statement underway in 2008 was stopped by new scientific information that found the group of gray whales that frequents the Washington coast has distinctive genetic markers that differentiate them from the 20,000 gray whales that migrate along the West Coast.

“Those resident whales would have been gone,” Chuck Owens said.

Donna Darm, associate deputy administrator for NOAA’s west region, said Thursday a new statement incorporating that information should be ready for public review by the fall.

Darm and Keith Johnson noted that the tribe’s hunt plan calls for kills of transient whales only.

The 1999 hunt was uplifting for many members of the tribe, according to Makah General Manager Meredith Parker.

“There’s a lot of pride that has stuck with us from that 1999 hunt,” Parker said, “because we did it the right way.”

But the rogue 2007 hunt created divisions, Keith Johnson said, pointing out there was no event to mark the 10-year anniversary of the 1999 hunt.

“Do you see the whole tribe here?” he asked as he pointed to the three dozen people on the beach before Saturday’s commemorative paddle.

Saturday’s paddle began with a prayer for more unity from Gordon Lyons and a song for good luck from Darrell Markishtum.

Keith Johnson expressed hope that divisions within the tribe could be closed.

“It’s our traditional food, and people still want it,” Johnson said. “And if for no other reason, a lot of people here will support us for the treaty right.”

Johnson also pointed to the tribe’s cohesion in 1999.

“When we all get attacked, we all stick together. Because we’re one community.”

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In the Words of Farley Mowat

The world has suffered another great loss with the death of author, naturalist and avid animal advocate, Farley Mowat. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I do feel extremely fortunate to have received an endorsement for my book from him, just two short years before his passing.

He didn’t use the internet, so I sent a manuscript to his assistant, who had to hand deliver it (presumably on snowshoes) to him at his place in eastern Canada. This is what he had her send back to me, which now holds a special place on the back cover of the book:

“Robertson’s new book could be titled The Big and Dirty Game, because that’s what it is about — the dirty, bloody business of killing other animals for sport and fun. Fun? Sure, that’s what the Sportsmen say . . but read about it for yourself . . .”   ~ Farley Mowat, Author of Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing

One of Farley Mowat’s many classic books, A Whale for the Killing, written in1972, was an autobiographical account of his moving to Newfoundland because of his love for the land and the sea, only to find himself at odds with herring fishermen who made sport of shooting at an 80-ton fin whale trapped in a lagoon by the tide. Although he had started off thinking folks around there were a quaint and pleasant lot, he grew increasingly bitter over the attitudes of so many of the locals who, in turn, resented him for “interfering” by trying to save the stranded leviathan.

Mr. Mowat writes, “My journal notes reflect my sense of bewilderment and loss. ‘…they’re essentially good people. I know that, but what sickens me is their simple failure to resist the impulse of savagery…they seem to be just as capable of being utterly loathsome as the bastards from the cities with their high-powered rifles and telescopic sights and their mindless compulsion to slaughter everything alive, from squirrels to elephants…I admired them so much because I saw them as a natural people, living in at least some degree of harmony with the natural world. Now they seem nauseatingly anxious to renounce all that and throw themselves into the stinking quagmire of our society which has perverted everything natural within itself, and is now busy destroying everything natural outside itself. How can they be so bloody stupid? How could I have been so bloody stupid?’”

Farley Mowat ends the chapter with another line I can well relate to: “I had withdrawn my compassion from them…now I bestowed it all upon the whale.”

And Farley Mowat writes here of the wrongheadedness of hunting intelligent animals, such as geese, in his foreword to Captain Paul Watson’s book Ocean Warrior:

“Almost all young children have a natural affinity for other animals, an attitude which seems to be endemic in young creatures of whatever species. I was no exception. As a child I fearlessly and happily consorted with frogs, snakes, chickens, squirrels and whatever else came my way.

“When I was a boy growing up on the Saskatchewan prairies, that feeling of affinity persisted—but it became perverted. Under my father’s tutelage I was taught to be a hunter; taught that “communion with nature” could be achieved over the barrel of a gun; taught that killing wild animals for sport establishes a mystic bond, “an ancient pact” between them and us.

“I learned first how to handle a BB gun, then a .22 rifle and finally a shotgun. With these I killed “vermin”—sparrows, gophers, crows and hawks. Having served that bloody apprenticeship, I began killing “game”—prairie chicken, ruffed grouse, and ducks. By the time I was fourteen, I had been fully indoctrinated with the sportsman’s view of wildlife as objects to be exploited for pleasure.

“Then I experienced a revelation.

“On a November day in 1935, my father and I were crouched in a muddy pit at the edge of a prairie slough, waiting for daybreak.

“The dawn, when it came at last, was grey and sombre. The sky lightened so imperceptibly that we could hardly detect the coming of the morning. We strained out eyes into swirling snow squalls. We flexed numb fingers in our shooting gloves.

“And then the dawn was pierced by the sonorous cries of seemingly endless flocks of geese that cam drifting, wraithlike, overhead. They were flying low that day. Snow Geese, startling white of breast, with jet-black wingtips, beat past while flocks of piebald wavies kept station at their flanks. An immense V of Canadas came close behind. As the rush of air through their great pinions sounded in our ears, we jumped up and fired. The sound of the shots seemed puny, and was lost at once in the immensity of wind and wings.

“One goose fell, appearing gigantic in the tenuous light as it spiralled sharply down. It struck the water a hundred yards from shore and I saw that it had only been winged. It swam off into the growing storm, its neck outstreched, calling…calling…calling after the fast-disappearing flock.

“Driving home to Saskatoon that night I felt a sick repugnance for what we had done, but what was of far greater import, I was experiencing a poignant but indefinable sense of loss. I felt, although I could not then have expressed it in words, as if I had glimpsed another and quite magical world—a world of oneness—and had been denied entry into it through my own stupidity.

“I never hunted for sport again.”

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World Court rules Japan’s whaling not for scientific purposes

Monday March 31, 2014

The International Court of Justice has ruled that Japan’s whaling programme is not for scientific purposes, in a landmark decision tonight.

After years of protest and diplomatic wrangling, the court in The Hague ruled by 12 votes to 4 that Japan does not have the right to hunt whales in the Antarctic. The decision is binding so Japan can not appeal.

“The court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not for purposes of scientific research,” President Peter Tomka told the International Court of Justice tonight.

The court ruled Tokyo should cease its whaling programme “with immediate effect”.

New Zealand helped Australia to haul Japan before the courts accusing Japan of exploiting a loophole in the rules by saying they are hunting whales for scientific purposes.

Japan says it’s necessary to kill a small number of whales to find out more about them. In the last 20 years, 10,000 whales have been slaughtered in the name of science.

The case started in 2010 but during a three-week hearing last year, New Zealand and Australia argued Tokyo’s programme was just a commercial operation in disguise.

However, Japan argued the court didn’t have the right to decide what is and isn’t science.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully said it was a complex case.

“The big issue for us is whether we do see a pathway out of whaling in the Southern Ocean from Japan’s perspective and that’s what we’ll be looking for in the small print of the court’s decision.”

In 1986 commercial whaling was banned but several countries like Norway and Iceland continue to practise it and remain members of the commission. Japan reverted to the 1940s regulations that allow hunting for scientific purposes but there are no rules on how many whales can be killed.

The Sea Shepherd protest ship has been working to stop whaling in the Southern Ocean. The ship has collided with whaling boats, dragged ropes in the water to damage propellers and used smoke bombs.

Sea Shepherd campaigner Pete Bethune says it’s “judgment day for Japan… the stakes couldn’t be higher”.

http://tvnz.co.nz/world-news/court-rules-japan-s-whaling-not-scientific-purposes-5880814

whaling_stand_off_causes_diplomatic_waves_1721713978

Who’s the Real Anti?

When it comes to hunting, I’m definitely an “anti.” As I point out in my book, Exposing the Big Game: “Not only am I anti-hunting, I’m avidly anti-trapping, anti-seal clubbing and anti-whaling. For that matter, I’m anti any form of bullying that goes on against the innocents—including humans. I am not an apologist for the wanton inhumanity of hunting in the name of sport, pseudo-subsistence or conservation-by-killing.”

Most of all, I’m pro-wildlife, pro-nature and pro-animal.

If you’re following this blog, you probably feel the same. According to hunters, you’re one of the “antis.” Hunters like to stereotype us all with a negative brush stroke, yet they are the real “antis.”

Hunters are anti-wildlife, anti-wilderness, anti-nature and when it comes down to it, anti-animal. Most of all, they’re anti-competition, i.e., they’re anti-cougar, anti-coyote and unquestionably anti-wolf. Just ask the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, who tried to get an initiative on the ballot in 2008 calling for the removal of “all” of the wolves in their state, “by whatever means necessary.”

Now, you might be thinking, “Surely hunters aren’t always negative; they must be pro-something?” Well, you’d be right—they’re pro-killing, pro-death, and when it comes right down to it, pro-animal cruelty.

Let’s face it, you can’t kill an animal without being cruel; and therein lies the real reason I’m anti-hunting.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2012. All Rights Reserved

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2012. All Rights Reserved

Ignorance is Such Selfish Bliss

Practically every day I receive ignorant comments from hunters which reinforce my theory that—despite their overweening attitude—their understanding of the science of biology is inherently lacking. Just yesterday I trash-canned a comment from a defensive sportsman who obliviously declared, “You might be related to primates, but I’m not,” before going on to accuse me of being ignorant!

Another well-worn classic hunter excuse I hear on a weekly basis—one that must be a contender for the top ten feeblest rationalizations for hunting of all time—is some variation of the ridiculous notion that, “Our sharp teeth are proof that we’re meant to be carnivores.” I could go on all day refuting this absurd figment, but I don’t want to bore the educated reader with something so off-base. (If you happen to be one of those who consider that statement an accepted truth, please take some time to look it up and learn a little about physical anthropology and humankind’s ancestry.)

The history of how Homo sapiens became the species we are today harkens back a bit farther than 10,000 years (as young-Earth creationists believe) or even 100,000 years, as those who tout the caveman diet might suppose. Every species here today has an extensive backstory. As you may well know, we all started out as sea creatures at one time (long before the first biped sharpened the first stone for butchering carrion).

During the reign of the dinosaurs, all of us mammals were rodent-sized creatures who scurried about and tried to stay out from under foot. After the extinction spasm that ended the dinosaur’s days, mammals had a chance to flourish and diversify. Some went through more radical changes than others.

Whales were once wolf-like mammals that returned to the sea between 60 and 37 million years ago, in the early Eocene epoch, eventually becoming the largest animal ever to grace the oceans or the Earth. In terms of physical changes, our species’ story is nowhere near as dramatic as that of the whales. But as far as our impact on all other life forms, it’s a doozy.

No other species of animal has come from such humble beginnings as a tree shrew, progressed through the monkey-types and on to forest-dwelling apes, only to climb down out of the acacia and kill off the largest, mightiest or most numerous of species. But rather than weighing on our species’ collective conscience, it’s gone to our collective head, in the form of an over-inflated ego that is a key trait of the genus Homo. No other species can claim responsibility for changing the Earth’s climate to the detriment of all life or—Homo sapiens’ crowning achievement—causing a planet-wide mass extinction event.

As blissful as it must be to have our collective head in the clouds, when it comes to human origins, it’s critical that we come down to Earth once in a while and keep ourselves informed of reality, lest ignorance facilitate our own demise.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson