On Whales’ Appetites: What a Waste

Humane Society International held a phone-in press briefing late this afternoon from Santiago, Chile, to rebut the charges by some whaling nations that big cetaceans are responsible for diminishing fish stocks. HSI commissioned a study of the issue and Daniel Pauly, one of the report’s authors, was on the line for reporters to question.

HUNGRY FOR WHAT? Filter-feeding minkes are among the whale species charged with depleting fish stocks around the world. iStockphoto/baddpix

To my surprise, I was the sole individual to do so.

Does that mean I was the only reporter to “attend?” I certainly hope so, because if not, my colleagues exhibited an appalling lack of curiosity. But the sponsors of this event also missed the mark — big time.

The health of whale populations around the world ranges from bad to grim. That’s why there’s been a relative moratorium on their “harvesting” for oil and food. An organization initially set up by commercial whalers — the International Whaling Commission — votes on how many whales may be “taken” each year, from which populations, and by which nations. It’s a controversial business, with all players arguing that they have science on their sides.

They don’t. But that’s another story.

The briefing was timed to unveil Pauly’s findings on the opening day of this year’s IWC meeting.

Pauly, director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia, is a renowned scientist who has spent much of his career identifying interconnections within the marine food web. In particular, he has shown that commercial fishing fleets tend to be unraveling that web by removing the top predators — the biggest species and the most fecund members of those species. So I was quite interested in what Pauly had just learned.

Unfortunately, attempting to pry loose those findings was like pulling teeth.

HSI president Patty Forkan opened the event, arguing that “whaling countries, particularly Japan, are claiming that unless they kill whales, the whales will continue to eat all of the fish.” In fact, she said, Pauly’s team “clearly shows” that the threat to fish stocks “is not whales but industrialized fishing.” Indeed, his analyses illustrate that “the argument by the Japanese and other whalers is utterly bogus.”

After that brief statement, just a few sentences long, Forkan opened the briefing to questions.

But what were we supposed to ask questions about? Forkan had spent one minute identifying herself and Pauly. She had spent a second minute — literally — synopsizing the new report in only the most sweeping fashion. No data were offered on where research had been conducted, what whales were studied, whether Pauly’s team collected field data directly or merely mined material from the literature, or how the researchers concluded that people were responsible for depleting fish stocks and that whales weren’t.

Hardly knowing where to start, I gamely stepped up to the mike, so to speak, and asked the first question: “Can you tell us something about what the study was looking at, what it found, and where it’s going to be formally published.”

It turns out that the researchers focused on countries in the Caribbean, West Africa and in the South Pacific — nations that vote at IWC meetings in favor of whaling. Like Japan, these nations have argued, Pauly said, that the loss of fish along their coastlines is “due to whales having eaten them. … [but] we can document that this is not the case. That the whales are there mainly for reproductive purposes.” In fact, he argued, long-distance fleets from Europe and East Asia are primarily responsible for the “catastrophic decline of the resources [fish stocks].”

His answer went on a few sentences further but didn’t add much more.

There is a certain etiquette to press briefings, which is that one reporter should not hog the microphone but allow a host of colleagues to get their chances to home in on whatever issues matter most to them. So as lame as that first answer seemed, I waited for the next reporter to speak up, perhaps picking up on my lead.

No dice. Just silence on the line.

So I asked the next question. And three more after that — such as what whales are concerned here (baleen whales, it turns out . . . the filter feeders that mainly dine on krill and other marine organisms that people don’t eat). I never felt any of my questions were answered satisfactorily. However, at the time I was mollified somewhat by Forkan’s announcement that Pauly’s full report was available on her organization’s website.

For the longest time, I couldn’t find it on that site, nor could Human Society staffers. (After three phone calls, one of them successfully located what turned out to be a four-page executive summary — the first page containing only the title and the image of a breaching humpback whale. What’s more, the only bit of data that summary contained on the nature of the study was a single sentence: “Our analysis . . . shows that in all three regions, domestic markets accounted for less than half of the catch, with a majority of the catch supplying markets of affluent countries in the EU, Japan, North America, and increasingly China.”)

Eventually, I did find the whole report, but it was really buried.

My concern here is that the issue of the briefing is an important one, and science could have — and arguably should have — been brought to bear on the decision of how many whales can be killed without irreparably heading the animals to extinction. This afternoon offered an opportunity for an advocacy organization to compel opinion shapers — we journalists — with logic, data, and statistically significant conclusions.

Instead, we were treated to inflammatory rhetoric and not a single hard number. So even had we wanted to make their case, we were denied the ammunition during this intercontinental phone-in.

It was a lost opportunity.

The whales deserved better.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Ecosystems

From the Nature Index

Paid Content