Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Whales on thin ice

When I first saw on Monday the truly amazing story on the BBC website about a grey whale sighted in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel, I was not sure what to say because it was so strange. Atlantic grey whales have been extinct since the XVIIth or XVIIIth century, and whales are not exactly small deepsea organisms that can pass unnoticed.

For me this story was just mind blowing. As weird as if someone announced they'd photographed a Dodo, it was like a belated April Fools Day stunt. Until I read Kieran Mulvaney's blog yesterday, where he explained that this whale is likely to be a victim of climate change. The most credible explanation, Kieran says, is that this grey whale would likely have got lost after entering the Arctic North West passage recently open as a result of ice melting induced by climate change.

Kieran does not explain why the whale was not sighted before it showed up off Tel Aviv a few days ago. But of course the weather and visibility have been rough this winter. And not every man on the bridge of ships can tell the difference between a sperm and a grey whale, or even a fin whale.

I'm sure there are plenty of plans now to monitor and watch the lost whale, wherever it decides to go. I hope some authorities are doing something to restrict the abundance of film crews and whale watchers who could disrupt the already stressed animal. But in a way it is good to see how the contemporary approach to natural science has evolved in modern days: not many decades ago the first thing scientists had done in such circumstances would have been to harpoon or shoot the poor thing.

[As a matter of fact, it is the existence in the first half of the XXth century of a "Discovery Committee" that prompted in 1946 the negotiators of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (which still governs the International Whaling Commission more than 60 years later) to adopt the now infamous clause (Article VIII) authorizing unilateral "scientific" whaling which the Japanee Fisheries Agency has been alleging to for two decades in order to circumvent the moratorium on commercial whaling. Article VIII was meant to let scientists catch a specimen or two in the event that a new species or rare animal was found; it was never meant to be a cover-up à la japonaise]

It's an interesting coincidence also to see this mysterious grey whale showing up only five weeks before the crucial annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission where a decision on the [no-] future of whaling is expected. Opponents to whaling argue for extreming precaution because no-one can really tell what is the future of whales in an environment bound to suffer increased environmental stress from climate change (including ocean acidification, changes in temperatures, water currents and salinity, etc.) and other human-induced environmental harms (fisheries by-catch and entanglement in nets, ship strikes, noise and toxic pollution, habitat disruption, etc.)

In a way the discovery of this grey whale emphasizes this message. It's only too bad that she swam all the way from the Pacific and came so close to Agadir, Morocco where the meeting of the IWC will take place next month, but missed it. Nice try, though.

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