Threats to the Great Whales

Update on
Navy Sonar, Japanese Whaling, and Global Warming

Our most majestic of creatures have been much in the news again lately. Some developments have been positive, others are ominous. Let’s start with the good news.

JAPANESE WHALING: On April 2, an announcement came out of Tokyo that Nissui – the country’s second largest seafood company – and four other firms were going to divest all their shareholdings in the Kyodo Senpaku whaling subsidiary and donate them to public corporations. Nissui also said it would stop canning and selling whale meat.

That was a major victory for Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace, Earth Island Institute and other environmental groups that had been applying pressure on Gorton’s of the U.S. and Sealord of New Zealand, two companies owned by Nissui. A letter writing campaign, and a threatened blacklisting of non-whale products, seem to have forced the parent corporation’s hand.

This comes at a most propitious time, amid Japan’s systematic and ongoing effort to stock the International Whaling Commission (IWC) with small nations ready to vote for lifting a moratorium on commercial whaling. Japan’s illegal whaling fleet continues to hunt hundreds of minke and endangered fin whales in the Southern Ocean, under the guise of scientific research, and says it will also target 50 endangered humpback whales in the Antarctic next winter. Some meat from the hunt, the government has admitted, is turned into pet food. There is even an industry campaign to introduce whale meat to school lunch programs in Japan.

The rub is, the shares divested by Nissui have simply been assumed by the government of Japan, where the Fisheries Agency is already a strong proponent of intensified whaling. So the Sea Shepherds have made it clear that they’ll be back in the Antarctic with a ship, ready to blockade the Japanese fleet. They are currently fundraising for this effort (see their website, and trying to convince Greenpeace to join with them.

NAVY SONAR: A report issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service on March 29 identified sonar operated by the U.S. Navy as a possible cause of a mass stranding of whales on the North Carolina coast in January 2005. A total of 33 pilot whales, two pygmy sperm whales, and a minke whale had all washed ashore and died within a two-day period – very close to the proposed site of a new 660-square-mile underwater sonar testing range. (For more on whales and sonar, see this author’s article “Collateral Damage,” written for Mother Jones Magazine). The report concluded that, while it could not give a definitive cause, Navy ships had used sonar in the area the day before the stranding and most of the animals appeared otherwise healthy.

The scientific journal Nature reported simultaneously on a mass stranding of beaked whales along the coast of southern Spain last January, where naval sonar was the “most likely” cause. In this instance, it was Britain’s Royal Navy whose NATO exercise was at fault. And, in response, Britain announced on March 26 that its warships would be equipped with a new scanning system to “listen” for the sounds of more than 100 species, including whales, porpoises and dolphins. Should any be detected, the sonar would be switched off.

That’s a course which, at a minimum, the U.S. Navy should follow as well – instead of continuing to stonewall the impact of its sonar exercises. Meantime, in mid-February, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sharply challenged the Navy’s plans to build the Atlantic Ocean sonar training range it is seeking. NOAA’s letter said the Navy failed to take into account the annual migration of the critically endangered right whales in proximity of the proposed site off North Carolina. And the Navy’s allowable noise level is fully 100 times as high as that recommended by NOAA.

GLOBAL WARMING: Now for the very bad news….The warming waters of the Bering Sea, where the gray whales go to feed each winter, are already taking a toll. In the past, bottom-feeding fish like halibut and flounder have stayed clear of the near-freezing water where the whales eat small crustaceans called amphipods. Now, as temperatures have risen as much as 6 degrees Fahrenheit on the sea floor, the fish have moved north and are devouring the whales’ food of choice.

A report in the journal Science presented evidence that “gray whales have responded by moving their primary foraging area [further] northward,” with more being seen near Barrow, Alaska, than ever before. There is a limit, however, to how far they can go before they fall off the continental shelf. And there remains the question of limited reserves as they make a much longer trip back to breeding and calving areas of Baja, California.

By early February, only half as many whales as last year had made it to Laguna San Ignacio to give birth. Scientists warned that the migrating grays were staying farther offshore, and expressed concern about possible widespread strandings on their way back to the Bering Sea this year.

Already, the gray whale population count dropped from 26,600 to just over 17,000 when the last census was taken a few years ago. With the climate of the Bering Sea undergoing profound and perhaps irreversible change, it may be only a matter of time before the “friendly grays” pay a huge price.