Of Whales and Fish

First, the good news: In mid-February 2011, the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic’s Southern Ocean called it quits because of pressure from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Paul Watson’s crew on three ships had been chasing the Japanese fleet for more than a week, making it impossible for them to continue operations. This year, the courageous 88-person crew (hailing from 23 nations) had faster ships that could out-run their enemy. The Sea Shepherds shined laser beams and threw flares, forcing the Japanese to claim it was unsafe for them to continue. So the Shepherds provided an “escort” as the whalers headed north toward port again.

This marked the first time Japan had been stopped short of taking its quota under the guise of “scientific whaling,” which it’s been doing ever since a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling went into effect in 1986. The fact is, few Japanese eat whale meat anymore. So meat from the previous hunts has been piling up in freezers or given to schools for the kids’ lunches! In the Antarctic this year, they’d taken 170 minke whales (out of a quota of 850 granted them by the International Whaling Commission, IWC) and two fin whales (of a quota of 50). The Sea Shepherds estimated Japan’s decision to cease-and-desist had saved the lives of about 900 whales.

That’s wonderful news, but you still have to wonder whether the Japanese will now use this as leverage to try to strike a deal at the IWC meeting in Norway next spring. In January, WikiLeaks released four confidential cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the State Department in Washington, revealing American and Japanese diplomats secretly negotiating an agreement in November 2009. The U.S. was pushing Japan to reduce its killing of whales in the Antarctic, in exchange for getting the right to hunt whales off the Japanese coastline. As part of the “compromise,” the Japanese also wanted the U.S. to take action against the Sea Shepherds. One of the cables has Monica Medina, the U.S. representative to the IWC, saying “she believes the USG [U.S. Government] can demonstrate the group does not deserve tax exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions.”

As it turned out, the status quo stayed in place at the 2010 IWC meeting. But what does that statement imply – that these brave protectors of our greatest marine mammals are no more than “terrorists?” One of the Sea Shepherd boats even sank a year ago, after its bow got sheared off when a Japanese vessel intentionally rammed it. Why didn’t that action receive condemnation from our government?

There was more seeming good news for whales early in February, when Royal Dutch Shell announced it was abandoning plans to drill for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas – at least for this year. Too many regulatory hurdles from the U.S., claimed the biggest oil company in Europe, the biggest being the EPA demanding a more thorough review of what impact diesel emissions from the exploration could have on indigenous communities in the Arctic. But Shell already has more than 30 permits lined up, and they’ve made it clear that their lobbyists aren’t about to stop pushing ahead.

Which means that a prime habitat for polar bears – already threatened due to melting ice – and the main feeding ground for the migrating California gray whales is going to be in grave jeopardy. Russia, which has already passed the Saudis as the world’s biggest oil producer, signed an Arctic exploration deal for oil and natural gas in January with none other than BP. Vladimir Putin went so far as to say that BP was the best partner possible, because they’d surely learned their lesson from the Gulf Oil disaster! Since polar bears and gray whales don’t understand international borders, Russia could forge right on if they choose.

But no new drilling has been allowed in the Arctic since 2003, and for good reason. Not only is this an area of ice packs and icebergs that pose a threat to drilling rigs and crews – but one of dense fog, sometimes hurricane force winds, and ice cover for as many as nine months that would block any relief ships if a spill occurred. And if the spill was during the winter months, any clean-up would have to happen in the complete darkness that covers the whole region at that time.

Oil-and-gas exploration isn’t all that the gray whales are up against. “Gray whales are facing challenges on all fronts, hunting, killer whales, low cow-calf counts, climate change,” says Sue Arnold, CEO of the California Gray Whale Coalition. “Where do you draw the line in the sand?” So far, the National Marine Fisheries Service isn’t willing to do so. It turned down a petition by the Coalition to change the gray whales’ status to “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That would simply mean that a conservation plan needs to be developed. And there’s no doubt one should be. Gray whales were still on the Endangered Species List when their population stood at 17,000. In 2006-7, the population estimate stood at 19,000, and there’s been no abundance study done since. Is there something the government doesn’t want to know, especially when Big Oil is trying to move big-time into the Arctic migration areas?

Now for the really bad news from the marine realm, horrifying actually. In late January and early February, more than 10 tons of illegally-caught striped bass were found by the authorities, dead in unmarked gill nets anchored to the bottom of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. That’s right, over 10 tons! These types of gill nets have been outlawed since 1985, the last time that striped bass were on the verge of disappearing. Marine fisheries officers only discovered this tragedy when some licensed fishermen tipped them off.

And this wasn’t even the end of it. The next week, police recovered more than 5,000 yards of illegal anchored nets – one-third as much as they recovered all of last year! They released whatever live striped bass they could, but thousands were too stressed to survive. “These violations are a shameful theft of the public trust,” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley said, and made sure that the commercial gill net fishery closed early.

But that came too late, and on the heels of what had happened on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where female stripers migrate for the winter before returning to the Chesapeake region to spawn. Because the state allows the use of large trawl nets, these huge trawlers pulled up thousands of striped bass and dumped most of the “bycatch” overboard. The massive fish kills happened three times in three weeks, the last leaving a trail of dead bass four miles long and half-a-mile wide. State officials should have pulled the plug on the trawling season at the first signs of such wanton waste, but instead they tried piecemeal measures – and the result was disastrous.

Already last October, the annual young-of-the-year index of striped bass spawning success in the Chesapeake was well below average for the third consecutive year. The only positive event in recent months was the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) deciding not to raise the commercial quota allowed coastwide. But when it comes to stronger restrictions on the menhaden fishery – the striped bass’ primary source of food – the ASMFC has gone no further than to establish a “committee of experts” to come up with more conservative benchmarks to ensure menhaden stability. This came after a scientific stock assessment found that the overall abundance of menhaden had fallen, catches were well beyond the target levels, and reproductive potential was way down. For one simple reason: a single corporation, Omega Protein, sends out spotter planes and factory ships to net schools of menhaden the size of football fields. The little fish are then ground into meal and oil for use in a variety of products including fertilizer, paint, cosmetics, food for pets and farm animals, and fish oil health supplements.

As to the supplements: last October, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a big study. It found that, while obstetricians had been encouraging pregnant women to take fish oil pills to supposedly help the baby’s cognitive development and reduce their own post-partum depression, there was no evidence either was true. Another study, by the Aquaculture Research Institute at the University of Idaho, concluded in November that PetroAlgae protein is better than menhaden fishmeal protein in feeds to raise tilapia, one of the largest volume farmed-fish species.

So as striped bass seek in vain for enough menhaden to eat (75 percent of undernourished Chesapeake stripers now carry an infectious disease called mycobacteriosis that can eventually prove fatal), what are our fisheries regulators waiting for? “The time has long since past when the federal government has to act to save the menhaden,” writes H. Bruce Franklin, author of The Most Important Fish in the Sea. “The case of striped bass and menhaden will demonstrate whether their talk about ecosystem management means anything at all.”

Dick Russell