Okay, so now I have seen everything.
Japan, devastated by the tsunami and earthquake, reeling after Fukushima, is going to spend even more money on subsidizing its whaling fleet. ABC is reporting that around an additional 2 billion yen will be put into the overall support (some estimates put it at the equivalent of Aus$40 million) for the loss making fleet.
And the reasons reported for this. Japan does not wish to loose face in being seen to give into opposition to its whaling policy.
So Japanese people will suffer, areas of Japan will be rebuilt later, just because Japan cannot get over a cultural hurdle? What is so stupid is that the disasters of the last year are the perfect excuse for Japan to save face and get out of this preposterous business once and for all.
But no, Japan's pride in its unnecessary whaling is so important, that it must be put before the safety and future of millions of Japanese, many of who care little about whaling or are unaware of the global opinion about Japan's renegade whaling.
Yep, now I have seen everything.
Okay, so now I have seen everything.
It seems that what some of us have been saying for some time is slowly dawning on some of the proponents of whaling.
If you want healthy oceans, we need many more whales and dolphins.
The Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið reports that Örnólfur Thorlacius has questioned the issue of whether whales are eating all the fish, a popular myth postulated by proponents of whaling to ensure the continuance of government support, in the form of both political and taxpayers money, for the continuation of an outmoded industry.
In an article entitled 'Can we lose the whale from the food chain' the author questions why it is that with so many whales removed by whaling, the oceans are not teeming with life, pointing to work in the southern hemisphere that shows whales are integral to the heath of the oceans.
So Icelanders, you may be weakening the future of your own fishing industry by the insistence of a few individuals that whaling continues. It seems that the many will pay the price for the gain of a few rich individuals. And there was me, thinking that Icelanders had learned that lesson in the last few years.
All the discussion of the economic problems in the global economy is annoying. Not because there is not a problem, but because I feel that the media can sometimes move from 'reporting the issues' to 'hyping the gloom'. Just look how the markets react to the latest media reports on rumours and suggestions of countries defaulting on their loans. Now it may well be about to happen, but some reports seem to help it on its way by causing such gloom that it becomes a component of causation. I am sure the Greek Government would like people to stop stating that 'its going to default on its debt', as every published article or news piece seems to add another percentage point to its repayment costs - and so hasten the default.
Unfortunately it also happens in the whaling debate. Recently in Brussels it was reported that a member of the EU Commission seemed to be telling other colleagues and MEPs that the 'IWC needs fixing before it falls apart'. This is the kind of thing we hear when people are badly briefed and think that, they, despite all the efforts of others, can 'fix the problem'.
What plank of logic this is based on I don't know. Yes the whaling interests in Norway, Japan and Iceland have worked hard to create the image of a 'dsyfunctional IWC', but its their actions that has made the IWC a difficult place to work in. The conservation-led countries don't need to hype the problems, they need to help stop the whaling interests making it worse. The EU should definately not give the whalers what they want because its the 'easy option' or because its seen as a way of 'fixing' the IWC.
It's like rewarding a screaming drunk with another bottle of booze, after everyone has said its cannot have any more because its bad for them and those around them. But the drunk is stuck in the past and like a badly behaving child, will rant and flail until they get what they want. Some justify giving in by saying its the only solution (for an easy life), because otherwise the drunk will go and smash their way into the off-licence and take the booze themselves. So they break the rules, they bend the rules, - 'because what else can they do?'
Well there is a lot they can do. And they can start by listening to those who understand the history of the whaler's manoeurverings in the IWC, and not the panicked calls of a few bureaucrats. If they are not extremely careful, their ignorance of the issue will deliver the whalers all they want, and more.
When people start believing the hype they can make mistakes. The EU Commission needs to think carefully about where its getting its briefings from and Member States should not give into the rhetoric coming from some about a 'dyfunctional' IWC, - else they may well just help create one.
WDCS is very sad to learn of the death of one of the great champions for the whales and one of our friends, Alexandre de Lichtervelde, the first Commissioner for Belgium to the International Whaling Commission.
Alexandre was appointed to this role in 2004 when Belgium joined the Whaling Commission and immediately brought to it a new, distinctive and very welcome approach. He was also deeply involved in Antarctic issues. Over the last day, as the news of his untimely death has broken, we have witnessed tributes to him coming from all around the world. These tributes show the deep affection and admiration that many felt for him.
Alexandre made a profound contribution at the IWC, and many of us at WDCS worked closely with him. He was highly instrumental in the expansion of the Commission’s work into a number of new and important spheres, including most recently consideration of the effects of ship-strikes on whales. He brought great energy and integrity to all that he did and he was essentially a key driving force in opening up the IWC to address new issues, including by the leadership he brought to its Conservation Committee. He also notably supported contributions at IWC meetings of young scientists.
We knew Alexandre as a man of excellent humour and he was often featured in the WDCS blog from the IWC, which we also knew he avidly read and would comment on (including if he felt it was not funny enough or inaccurate). At the IWC meeting in Morocco last year, Alexandre did not hesitate to pose for a picture for the blog waving a small fan in the air which was being used as a lobbying tool by one conservation organisation. Whilst he did not always take him self seriously, his dedication to cetacean conservation was very clear and he was determined to make a difference to the way in which the IWC worked. In this he was in many ways successful and this will be part of his legacy.
He was also good company and after the hard work at meetings was over for the day, he would be found celebrating with friends reflecting on events with a wry humour. We were proud to be counted amongst these friends and he will be very sorely missed by us and many others within the conservation world.
We send our sincere condolences to his family and his other friends.
The long-awaited hearing between the Occupational Health and Safety
Administration (OSHA) and SeaWorld started this week near Orlando, Florida. At the heart of the hearing are an administrative law judge’s attempts to evaluate whether the August 2010 citation issued by OSHA against SeaWorld is justified, and whether recommendations prescribed by OSHA to remedy the cited hazards are feasible. And we cannot forget that at the heart of this week’s review are the deaths of two beloved trainers, and the countless injuries of others. As I attend the hearing this week, it has become painfully obvious that SeaWorld is very confident: it is confident in its processes and protocols, and it is confident in its collective ability to control the behavior and responses of not only its trainers, but its orcas.
It is not merely arrogance that leads SeaWorld to claim a fool-proof system with a 98% success ratio between correct (desirable) and incorrect (undesirable) orca-trainer interactions while at the same time leaving its trainers to rely upon their personal judgments and abilities to remain calm in aversive or challenging situations with orcas. It is actually cavalier folly to rely upon a system that is based solely on the knowledge and judgment of individual human trainers. SeaWorld’s ‘system’ is based in the practice of operant conditioning (an animal training protocol based on positive reward and relationship building) and is comprised of ‘standard operating procedures’, ‘training the trainers’ and mentorship through on- the- job experience.
What is actually on trial is SeaWorld’s ability to convince the judge that in spite of ever-present human error, the unexpected behavior of a killer whale or even a perfect track record of performance between trainer and orca, the lethal or near-lethal events over the past twenty years are preventable and avoidable. That a captive orca can kill even the most experienced trainer grown in the SeaWorld system is explained away not as a failure of the SeaWorld ‘system’ and its safety measures,but as an incident borne of specific contexts and circumstances, a complex mix of trainer response and orca compliance, and one that requires each trainer to be fully aware of his or her surroundings at all times, accountable for every nuance of behavior of his or her whale in the vicinity. When the system works, SeaWorld claims that orcas are predictable. When the system fails, as it has done many times, SeaWorld claims trainer error, and moves forward with a blind eye toward the root cause of these calamities: the stress of confinement for the orcas in its possession.
SeaWorld may acknowledge the ultimate vulnerability of trainers, but cannot seem to find a way to acknowledge that its entire program is based upon a very flagrant denial of the risk involved in interacting with a wild and ‘caged’ animal. Orcas will never be domesticated, and to pretend that they are as predictable as your family pet dog verges on delusional.
In their testimony, SeaWorld representatives claim to have witnessed and identified every possible behavior a killer whale could express in captivity. There is little they haven’t seen. They work closely with these animals, they take into account their personalities and behavioral histories, and they know how to preempt an undesirable response from ‘their’ orcas. And yet, despite this professed familiarity with killer whales in general, and their individual orcas more specifically, they act surprised when an orca doesn’t respond like a predictable automaton, even as they have spoken out of the other side of their mouth that each interaction is variable and does not necessarily lead to an expected behavior or response. They claim that every killer whale has the potential to behave like any other, yet act surprised when an orca pulls a trainer into the water by her arm (a behavior that has been shown by another orca at another location). This also means they do not label a whale as aggressive, even with a history of deaths left in his wake. They label his behavior as aggressive, and continue to believe in a program reliant upon human judgment and interpretation, hoping and predicting that an aggressive tendency can be corrected or eliminated by the SeaWorld system.
Perhaps surprisingly, SeaWorld gives their orcas the benefit of the doubt. SeaWorld testimony suggests that captive orcas may respond aggressively in a certain stage of their life (like many of us do), they may outgrow certain behaviors (like many of us do), or they may learn from past ‘mistakes’ (also like many of us do). We are left to believe that the only weak link in the system is the trainers, and their ability (or inability) to predict the unpredictable. SeaWorld suggests that they ‘know’ whether an orca is enjoying an interaction, and are able to interpret every behavior to guide a favorable outcome. But a whale has to eat to survive, and the fact that he is performing a behavior for a reward or reinforcement of fish, ice cubes or gelatin is no guarantee that the whale is ‘enjoying’ the interaction, or that he will not someday, or in some instance, reject the relationship. And sometimes the rejection of that relationship ends in death.
Judge Welsch made a point at the very beginning of the hearing to clarify that its purpose was not to explore the issue of whether killer whales should be in captivity, or even whether SeaWorld is responsible for the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, but to examine the citations issued in August by OSHA. But I would like to suggest that the hearing is all about captivity, and whether or not whales should be there.
From my perspective, it IS all about captivity that Mrs. Brancheau is no longer with us and died a horrible and tragic death at the mercy of a 12,000 pound orca named Tilikum. It IS all about captivity that orcas have displayed serious acts of aggression and aberrant behavior towards their human caretakers on over 100 occasions, but yet such aggressive acts towards humans have not been documented in the wild. And it IS all about captivity that orcas are the subject of the hearing that began on Monday where OSHA is facing off with SeaWorld to defend the citation it issued just over a year ago and reprimanding the theme-park giant with ‘willful’ negligence in failing to protect animal trainers from hazards associated with working with Tilikum and the other orcas at SeaWorld. The two are intimately connected: holding orcas in captivity and the inevitability of trainer harm. To pretend that the welfare of these animals is not important is to ignore the root of the problem.
SeaWorld has historically held a special place in our society. It has been blindly accepted and promoted as a cultural icon of entertainment and a popular family vacation destination. This seemingly blind acceptance of captivity by society is supported by annual attendance figures in the tens of millions. Is there any place more idyllic than a marine amusement park, where visitors can get up close and personal with ‘Flipper’ the bottlenose dolphin or ‘Shamu’ the killer whale? Orcas are among the most popular of species in the dolphin family. They share the captivity stage with belugas and bottlenose, but are distinguished by their stark black and white form and immense size. It’s good family fun, at least on the surface, especially if you buy into the feel-good advertisements that adorn our magazines, billboards and television sets. SeaWorld is represented as being just about as American as you can get, joining the ranks of baseball and apple pie, and perhaps even a bit more magical.
But all of that changed over a year and a half ago when Alexis Martinez and then Dawn Brancheau were killed within a few months of each other, both by orcas owned by SeaWorld. Captivity is not an end product, it is a process. It begins with the inhumane and traumatic capture from the wild or transport from another facility and ends with a life sentence of medication, cramped spaces and forced associations. Once in captivity,
if it is not septicemia or pneumonia that takes the life of a stressed and medicated orca, it will perhaps be the ingestion of foreign objects, routine medical care, or a variety of hazards associated with confinement. Regardless of how ‘state of the art’ a facility is, and considering the decades of breeding technology and methodology employed by captive facilities, there will always be the need for fresh DNA to maintain a healthy gene pool. It is a fact that US facilities are contemplating future captures of belugas in Alaska to freshen their gene pools, and orcas are on the menu for captures elsewhere in the world to replenish dying breeding lines. This means captivity is not just a welfare issue, but a conservation issue. And it is not only about the individual animal taken into captivity, but the families that are left behind in the wild.
Media attention to controversial captures, unnecessary deaths, inhumane transportation and injuries incurred in whale and dolphin interaction programs has had an impact on the public’s perception of marine theme parks. Opinion polls conducted over the past decade reveal that most people now think that captivity of marine mammals is justified only when there are measurable scientific or educational benefits.
I argue that the exposure to whales in captivity does exactly the opposite of what SeaWorld and other marine parks claim—instead of sensitizing visitors to marine mammals and their habitat, it desensitizes us to the cruelty inherent in removing these animals from their natural habitats and holding them captive for our entertainment and self-fulfillment. Education is one of the most important ways we can instill the foundations for humane and ethical existence alongside the animals that share our planet. It should not be taken lightly. I am certain the trainers and staff of these parks love the animals in their care, but is possession in the best interest of the animals—and in the case of captive orcas, in the best interest of their trainers?
Corky (SeaWorld) and Lolita (Miami Seaquarium) have been confined for over 40 years since they were taken from their families in the Pacific Northwest. I am certain that they still remember, and still long for their family members and the expanse of ocean that nurtures their intended role in the ecosystem. Is not freedom, especially after the significant cost of a life in servitude to our entertainment, the best educational message we can send for all living creatures and future generations?
I hope for the day when the public will perceive the captive experience for what it really is. The repetition of a whale or dolphin jumping through a hoop, begging for dead fish pool-side, or swimming in endless circles is nothing short of an experience in despair and deprivation, despite the sugar-coating that is part of the captive experience. Plush toys, thrill rides and marketing can do little to erase the realities behind captivity.
Times are changing, and so are public attitudes. It is time that OSHA and the public demand a “product recall” on captive orcas. And it is time for SeaWorld to stop gambling the lives of its trainers and orcas while pretending it is an acceptable cost of doing business. No safety measures can ever fully mitigate the consequences and depravity of captivity.
Continue reading "Pulling back the curtain: why it took unthinkable tragedy to question our culture of captivity"
A rocky cradle.
One of the nice things about getting out into the field is that even if you are having a difficult time finding your focal species (was there ever a species more illusive than the Risso’s dolphin), your expedition can bring you into contact with many other interesting animals and the people that study them. Our latest expedition to Bardsey Island, off the coast of North Wales, which has a Risso’s dolphin study as its primary purpose has been beset by foul weather for its first two weeks. For many days the remains of Hurricane Katia have had us bunkered down in our cottage and also cut Bardsey off from the mainland. However, this has not stopped us witnessing some spectacular wildlife, including the annual miracle of the grey seal pupping season. So whilst the seas have been too rough to effectively watch for dolphins (although they have been sighted leaping from the foaming seas by the island’s resident battalion of avid bird monitors and the WDCS team), we have taken a little time to visit the seals nurseries.
The seals can be seen all around the island but most seem to prefer the relatively sheltered bay of Henllwyn on the low lying South End. The shore in this bay ends where it meets earthen and rocky banks only a few metres high (you might call this a very low cliff) and landward to this is a grassy sward grazed by the island’s inquisitive little white sheep (which make mysterious pilgrimages around the island all through the day). The top of the banks makes a fine viewing point from which to watch the seals. Here in September, and through into October, the adults congregate. Mature females haul their fecund and bulging bodies up through the wrack-strewn rocks and boulders to give birth high on the shore. Meanwhile, waiting in the adjacent waters are the far larger males. They are up to three times the size of the females, some six and a half feet long and weighing 230 kg (or 36 stone). They are waiting for the opportunity to mate, something which the females allow after they have weaned their pups. In fact, in the near-shore waters, males and females can already be seen seemingly gently canoodling. It is all rather charming as the males and females sinuously intertwine in the water and, above the surface, whiskery faces come close together. The male with his large ‘roman’ nose snuffles gently at the female’s snout and she seems to reciprocate.
Not all seal behaviour is so gentle, however, as the males may aggressively patrol parts of the shore and defend these territories (and the females there) from one another. A lot of the competition seems to be bluffing but the scarring on the heads and noses of the bulls seals show that matters can become more violent. The female seals are also fierce in the defence of their pups. They determinedly drive the males away from their small white-coated new-borns, presumably to stop them inadvertently squashing them as they rove amorously around the shore, and they also drive other females away. This means that there are a series of pup-rearing sites along the shore marked by the presence of one recent mother and her newly delivered little white pup. The choice of pupping site is probably a key one as the pup’s first thee weeks is spent out of the water, and is all about getting very fat very quickly. It was thought for a long time that the new-borns could not swim and hence high tides and storms threatened their survival by drowning. It is now clear that they can swim to some extent even when just a few days old (something of an essential attribute for an animal born on an unpredictable intertidal zone), but they are also clearly vulnerable to being swept away, and it is essential to their survival that they have completed their fattening process before they are weaned, which happens when they are about three weeks of age. The mothers do not feed at all whist caring for their pups and whilst the pups get fatter, the mothers loose significant weight.
So, what we are witnessing here are the very young pups during those essential first few weeks of their lives. Every now and then, the pup and mother move close together. This may be the result of the plaintive (and rather human baby-like) crying of the pup. The mother moves into position and rolls over onto her side exposing her belly and the nipples which the pup latches onto. Her milk is amongst the richest in the animal kingdom (up to 60% fat) and the pup puts on weight remarkably fast. A newborn grey seal pup is big of head but small of body but, within a week or so, it becomes a fat little barrel of lard. Then, when about three weeks old, the pup’s coast changes from the distinctive white (that can make it shine like a beacon on a sunny shore) to assume more adult colours, and only then will it properly take to the sea. The text books would have us believe that three weeks or so is the only period of maternal care, after this the mother abandons the pup, romps with the waiting males and takes off to feed after her there weeks of fasting and pup-fattening. From this point onwards the pup must, it seems, make its own way in the world.
Shortly after our arrival on Bardsey, we took a look around the seals’ breeding haunts on South End. We found three white-coated pups in Henllwyn, one was already significantly tubby. Its attendant mother - who has a distinctively reddish coat and a pale face - as a result is looking quite skinny. Another, by contrast, was small, no more than a few days old, the remains of its umbilical cord still clearly visible. We followed ‘McMath’s rules’ for seal watching (Mandy McMath is the local seal researcher), which means that we watched from the banks and not down on the shore. We also approached carefully so that the seals could see us coming and they were not startled by our sudden appearance and, in addition, if the mothers seemed agitated by our presence we left.
The mother of the newest-born pup watched us from the surf-line. She was sleek and spotty and very alert. Her breeding area marked the edge of the more protected bay, where high and jagged rocks seemingly protected a deep cut into the low cliff. Towards the top of this miniature ravine lay her little white pup with its huge liquid black eyes. When we first saw it the pup was restless, slowly crawling around on the shore and sometimes rolling onto its back. Its hind flippers fiddled restlessly with each other (do all babies play with their feet) and, occasionally, it yawned revealing a big pink mouth. After a while its mother, which had just seen off a large male which was threatening to come onto the shore, bounced her way over the boulders to the pup and rolled over onto her side to allow him to feed. She kept one wary eye on us and, after a little while, we left her in peace. Her reddish neighbour with the portly pup also watched us go, her area of shore was further into the bay and looked more protected. Was she an older wise mother who had won a tussle for this premium birthing ground? (Mandy’s research indicates that the mothers tend to use the same sites and that the males to some extent patrol the same stretches of shore-line, so not only are the mothers exhibiting some site-fidelity but the father of their pups may stay the same across a number of years.)
Mother and pup.
Some time goes by before we visit the seals again and, since, our last visit, the tail-end of the hurricane has passed over bringing strong winds and a foamy sea. It was a bumpy night in our little rented cottage. The winds howled and, come the morning, a storm force ten is still forecast to follow. Down at South End the wind has churned up the sea into banks of foam which are blowing like snow from the north side (which the seals don’t seem to favour so much) across to the south. Huge rollers are coming in from the west and dramatically breaking over the rocks sending spray high into the air. There is a loud, low frequency churning noise like the working of some distant massive engine, but it is only the noise of the sea and the wind. The small local sheep are all huddled up against a wall trying to get out of the wind and reflecting no doubt on their next pilgrimage.
With some trepidation I approach the seal breeding sites. I lean heavily into the wind; my binoculars and camera are helpfully weighing me down but it is still a struggle to make progress. The first pup is still there high on the shore sleeping and oblivious to the turmoil around it. Its mother quietly watches as I pass. The pup looks a little fatter than yesterday.
A little further along the fattest pup has moved further up the shore and is now resting amongst some bits of plastics rubbish blown into that particular nook. He seems well protected from the waves and the wind. But what of the new born and his spotty and very alert mother with their nursery under the rocks at the far end of the bay? The small ravine in the cliff where they were is now full of whirling white water. The big waves have breached the protective line of rocks and the sea has poured into this rocky cradle.
But then I look back along the shore and along the boulder-strewn base of the low cliff the sun, which is shining intermittently through the scudding clouds, illuminates a small white body and then also I take another look at the adult seals along the shore. I recognise the slim neck and spotty face of the young mother. The new born is now nestled high above the water’s edge amongst the boulders which are tinged yellow by spots of salt-resistant lichen. His coat looks like he has had a recent soaking. It seems likely that he was washed out of the narrow ravine by the incoming tide and big waves and he must have swum, undoubtedly with his mother in close attendance, around the skinny ruddy-furred mother and the tubby pup to this new (and safer) location. The nervous mother cranes her neck to watch me watching him. She is also watching the sea and sitting at the very water’s edge as if trying to stop it coming up the shore with her body.
For the moment, the new born is safe. High amongst the boulders he is rolling about and playing with his hind flippers again, and yawning. It has perhaps been a big day for him. Hopefully his adventures are over and the winds and waves will calm and the next two weeks will allow him too to assume the tubbiness of his slightly older neighbour and finally take to the sea.
A resting bull seal.
Two months after the US Secretary of Commerce recommended that the US take strong action against Icelandic whaling, President Obama issued a strongly worded statement that fires a warning shot across Iceland’s bows if its fin whaling does not stop for good.Although the President did not go as far as WDCS and its follow NGOs hoped by imposing trade sanctions on Iceland, he directed his administration to review its diplomatic relationship with Iceland, potentially including cancelling meetings with Icelandic officials and withdrawing funding for joint projects in the Arctic.
Iceland did not undertake any fin whaling this summer, blaming reduced markets in Japan following the tsunami in March, but it has given no indication that its aggressive policy on fin whaling has changed. If Iceland resumes fin whaling, President Obama has sought an immediate report from his officials, suggesting that the door remains open for punitive economic measures against Iceland by the US in the future.
In late 2010, WDCS co-authored an 80+ page petition to the US government that set out how Iceland is undermining the effectiveness of both the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) by its ongoing whaling and international trade in whaling products in defiance of international bans.
The petition, which identified whaling-related commercial targets for sanctions in Iceland, was supported by nineteen other US conservation and animal welfare groups. Together, in recent weeks, we have collectively rallied hundreds of thousands of US citizens to send emails, faxes and letters to the President calling for sanctions.
Although we are disappointed that Iceland is not facing trade sanctions for its fin and minke whaling, we believe our months of effort paid off; the petition and your messages of support reached the President’s desk and he took us seriously. WDCS remains optimistic that strong action by the US will help bring an end to Icelandic whaling and trade.We expect to receive a response from the Department of Interior next month to the part of the petition related to Iceland’s trade in whale products.
I wrote today on the WDCS website that WDCS welcomed the UK's recommendation to Europe to establish an SAC for the Dogger Bank. I have to say that I have a lot of time for the UK Environment Minister, Richard Benyon and his civil servant team, but I sometimes wonder at the advice that they receive.
Speaking truth to power is the responsibility of NGOs, but its also the responsibility of the statutory agencies that we trust to look after the interests of the wildlife and natural environment around us. I do wonder however if those who have the ear of government sometimes get too many political signals from, I don't know, initiatives like the UK's Red Tape Challenge. For the next three weeks the Red Tape Challenge (RTC) will be focusing on the 287 environmental regulations that apply to businesses, covering issues such as waste, emissions and wildlife protection and inviting members of the public to say which ones should be scrapped if they inhibit business. We have mentioned this initiative before and would urge you to write in an advocate keeping the UK's wildlife protection measures.
It does seem that the political need to not inhibit development, especially developments far out to sea where very few can see the consequences, may mean that Ministers can receive what people think they 'want to hear' and not what 'they need to hear'. It will be interesting to see if the Dogger Bank becomes an area for offshore developments and whether the harbour porpoise would have inhibited any such developments?