What Can We Do To Help The Whales?

Updated: 3 January 2023

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In late December, 2022, the Maine congressional delegation attached a rider to the must-pass U.S. federal budget that exempts the Maine lobster industry from regulations that protect right whales. You can read more about that here, here, here and here.

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What the whales need most is exactly what the whole life system on Earth needs; they need us to live differently. That is what we need as well, because our habits are harming our own health and well-being as well as the health and well-being of the whales. We can take a range of actions to help the whales, from the simple to the complex, but in the end we all need to examine our lifestyles, and reject the life of consumerism (see below).

North Atlantic Right Whales Urgently Need Our Help

Learn About the Ocean
Reduce Ship Strikes
Reduce Entanglements
Reduce Trawling
Limit Ocean Noise
End Whaling
Stop Burning Fossil Fuels
Limit Seafood Consumption
Support Organizations
Reject Consumerism
We Need a Spiritual Revolution

Learn About the Ocean

One fairly simple thing we can do is to learn more about the oceans. Most of us know very little about this vital 90% of our planet. The oceans and the whales are fascinating and surprising, and almost certain to challenge conventional thinking in delightful ways.

If you have access, go on a whale watch with a reputable and respectful captain. Become acquainted with the marine mammals who live in your region. Whales are amazing creatures, and meeting one for the first time changes many people's lives.

There are many adopt-a-whale programs available that include educational materials. Here are four from organizations I know and trust:

Blue Ocean Society

New England Aquarium (Right Whale Adoptions)

Ocean Alliance

Pacific Whale Foundation

 

In addition to learning about whales and the oceans, there are many specific, practical things we can do that would be of immense help to the whales. Most of the threats to whales are human in origin, so humans can eliminate the threats.

Reduce Ship Strikes

Being hit by ships is a significant cause of whale deaths. Reducing ship speeds in coastal waters has been shown to reduce whale mortality. Thankfully, there has been significant movement on this, but more can be done. Download the Whale Alert App if you would like to see where whales are currently active in the western Atlantic. Whale Alerts for other regions are available from Conserve.io.

Sometimesa small shift in shipping lanes can move the majority of ship traffic away from the gathering places of the whales. We have a pretty good idea of where many whales congregate, and we know exactly where the shipping lanes are. Separating them is doable, but there can be a cost in longer shipping times. This has begun to happen, thanks to public support. Shipping lanes have been moved in and out of Boston, MA and through the Bay of Fundy, Canada, both critical areas for North Atlantic right whales. Changes have also been implemented in the Santa Barbara Channel and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to avoid the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, a significant area especially for blue whales.

Ultimately, if we really want to protect the whales from collisions with ships, we have to dramatically reduce global shipping. Fewer ships means fewer ship strikes and less ocean noise pollution. Global shipping is responsible for noise pollution that affects whales' ability to communicate with each other, and raises their stress levels, making them more suceptible to disease. Reducing global shipping would therefore be of great benefit to the whales. Start becoming aware of the origin of the things you buy. Is there a local alternative that would support the economy where you live and reduce the negative impact of shipping on whales?

Granted, this means re-localizing our economies in profound ways. It could mean disrupting current economic arrangements in ways that are destabilizing. It might require us to accept a more modest standard of living and higher prices. But it seems to me unequivocal that, from the whales' point of view, the best thing we can do is have a lot fewer ships plying the oceans.

Reduce Entanglement in Fishing Gear

Entanglement in fishing gear is a huge problem for the whales. Developing fishing and trap lines that sink to the bottom and don't tangle so easily would help. Ropeless traps are being developed that could significantly reduce the amount of rope in the water column. Commercial fishermen and their representatives are understandably resistant to these changes since they increase the cost of doing business and the fishing industry is already only marginally surviving in many places thanks to dwindling numbers of fish. Dialogue, creative innovation and a willingness of consumers to pay more for fish and lobster are needed. When whales do get entangled, emergency response teams attempt to free the whales, but disentanglement is dangerous and expensive, and does not solve the problem.

North Atlantic Right Whales Need Urgent Help

North Atlantic right whales are on the edge of extinction. They are particularly vulnerable to collisions and entanglement. Attempts to move shipping lanes and develop new methods of anchoring fishing gear have had little benefit so far. The ropeless trap technology mentioned above could help immensely, but the fishing industry has been slow to adopt it. See my Right Whale Pages for more information specific to this extremely endangered species of whale.

Reduce or Eliminate Trawling

We need to restrict destructive fishing practices like trawling in the primary whale feeding grounds that we know about. There have been recent, modest steps in this direction, mainly to protect herring, a vital whale and human food. More can be learned about midwater trawling at NOAA Fisheries.

Limit Ocean Noise

Because water is an ideal medium for transmission of sound, and rather poor for vision, nearly all marine organisms use sound for communication. In 2012 researchers at the New England Aquarium documented how shipping noise is a significant source of stress for right whales. Industrial activity in the ocean is increasing. The most recent concern is the rapid expansion of offshore wind turbines. As Michael Stocker, the founder of Ocean Conservation Research puts it, "as we expand our technologies into the ocean--along with the increasingly complex communication signals required to operate the technologies--how will this impact critters who are already communicating through these same acoustical communication channels?" Sources of noise in the ocean include Navy Sonar, seismic exploration for oil and minerals, construction of offshore oil wells and wind turbines, and most ubiquitous of all, shipping traffic. What can we do about this increasing noise in the ocean? Become informed. Become involved in policy discussions with legislators. And, as with everything here, find ways to de-industrialize your life. Is all this noise really necessary?

End Whaling

Whaling was banned internationally in 1986, but Japan, Iceland and Norway continue to hunt whales commercially. All three countries are resistant to outside pressure, so there is not much most of us can do. If you are a tourist visiting one of these countries, do not buy whale meat. If you have friends in any of these countries, encourage them to tell their governments to stop hunting whales and to support whale watching instead.

Stop Burning Fossil Fuels

Increasingly, whales are being affected by global warming. Among other issues, as the water warms, their food moves farther toward the poles and they have to travel farther, expending more energy. This is especially critical for most baleen whales, who spend the summer eating, and the winter fasting. If they have to travel farther to find their summer food, they are going to have a harder time surviving the lean winter months. This is evident in the behavior of North Atlantic right whales, who are highly endangered. To combat global warming, we have to stop burning fossil fuels, but we also have to simplify our lives, because manufacturing massive amounts of solar panels and wind turbines and batteries and shipping them all over the world will also negatively impact the whales.

Limit Seafood Consumption

Whales need a vibrant environment and abundant sources of food, so practices that support other oceanic species also support whales. Become acquainted with the fish sources that are considered sustainable. Resources for learning about sustainable seafood can be found at the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch. Both organizations recently listed Maine lobster as unsustainable, due to right whale entanglements in and adjacent to the Gulf of Maine. Consider abstaining from all seafood (and all meat as well).

Support Organizations That Help Whales

There are many groups engaged in helping the whales. They can all use support:

Blue Ocean Society

Ocean Alliance

Conservation Law Foundation

Natural Resources Defense Council

International Fund for Animal Welfare

Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Center for Biological Diversity

Center for Coastal Studies

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who are attempting to halt the Japanese whaling operation

New England Aquarium Right Whale Research

Oceana

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

Change How We Live

Creative action is also needed at a deeper level: radically changing how we live. Thirty years ago, saving the whales was an "us" versus "them" battle, where "them" were whale hunters. Now, the greatest threats to whales are global warming, global toxic and material pollution of the oceans, being hit by ships and getting entangled in fishing gear. These involve all of us. There is no "them" anymore. These problems are the direct result of the kind of life we live: the consumer-driven life based on accumulating more and more stuff and providing ourselves with more and more insulating comfort. Our "way of life" has become deadly for us and the whales.

We can and must scale back our consumption, live with less stuff, live more slowly and consciously, and discover the joy in that.

At the very least, we need to stop flying everywhere, stop driving single-occupancy cars, stop burning fossil fuels, stop eating meat, support smaller families, repair and reuse the things that we need and stop buying the stuff we do not need, dramatically lower the amount of global shipping, and change our thinking about the infinite growth of our economies. Such significant changes in how we live and run our economies require equally significant changes in our psyches, our sense of who we are, our ways of finding happiness in life, our beliefs about what makes a good and satisfying life. These are revolutionary changes, so most of us resist them. Despite the fact that this "way of life" has only existed for a little over 100 years, it is the only life most of us know, so we take it as inevitable and immutable. It is neither.

This is a huge challenge for us because the consumer society and the individual consumer identity are founded on the belief, deeply held and felt, that we are inadequate and incomplete, that to find fulfillment we need something more, something we do not currently have. This is as true in the spiritual marketplace as it is in the marketplace for things. Our entire social and economic system is driven by the cultivation of this belief: that you, as you are right now, are lacking something. If not the necessary stuff and power and money, then the necessary approval, or acceptance, or sex appeal, or knowledge, or experiences, or information, or status, or wisdom. The marketplace wants you to think you lack all of that so it can sell it to you, or a cheap and inadequate substitute.

Shedding the things and the beliefs and the attitudes and habits that have formed our sense of self is not trivial. To shed all of that, one needs a solid place to stand. We need to rediscover the root, the very foundation of life. For me that is to be found in nature and in deep silence. The lesson of both is the same: we lack nothing. Life is a miracle. We are in no way separate from absolutely everything that is. How, then, can we lack anything?

We Need A Spiritual Revolution

Possibly the most important thing we can do for the world, for the whales, for ourselves, is to engage in an honest contemplative inquiry.

"Contemplate" means "to observe closely." Contemplative inquiry is multifaceted. It involves observing the natural world openly, without any agenda; facing our thoughts and opinions and habitual reactions in a straightforward, uncompromising, yet nonjudgmental way; and realizing our ultimate "emptiness."

The mind is skilled at dancing around and not looking, at finding someone to blame or cooking up self-justifying excuses that are total nonsense. It is eager to be distracted by entertainments of its own making. But in my experience it is also capable of changing radically when it is faced with its own life-defeating ways, when it is allowed to see the truth of its attempts to wiggle and squirm out of the truth.

So I think it is essential that we face ourselves and our world honestly. Be still. Come to an absolute stop for just one moment. Stop imposing your worldview onto the world and your self image onto your self, for one moment. Stop, and listen to what the Earth is saying, and everything changes.

This is the essence of what the whales teach us, and it may be what they are trying to tell us: there is no such thing as a separate thing. There is no such thing as lacking. Those are mere ideas, mind-created illusions. Reality, our true nature, is the dance of the whole of everything, every rock and tree, every bird and whale, every mountain, every sea, every star, every planet, and the energy it all embodies. That is what we are, the whole of everything.

Finally, there is no question that the forces that keep us in thrall to our current way of life, and therefore threaten the whales, are not merely personal, but social and political. In truth, no separation exists between the social, the political and the personal. We are all caught up in a collective agreement to live off the exploitation of the Earth and each other. Historian John Dominic Crossan refers to this as the "exploitative normalcy" of civilization.

The contemplative, spiritual life I describe above and in my essays and blog, is one part of the unraveling of this exploitative normalcy that is choking the planet. When people stop buying the story of insufficiency, and discover the natural abundance of life, the whole edifice of consumerism collapses.

But there are those who profit directly from the status quo, much more so than the vast majority, who suffer terribly from it. Those of us who think our self-interest is best served by maintaining the current system are unlikely to let go of it easily, unlikely even to see the destructive part we play. Blind denial is a powerful force in us. We need creative encouragement to do the right thing. We might need a push or two from our poorer neighbors who can see the depth of our injustice much more clearly than we can. We need to look very clearly at how damaging our thought patterns and our lifestyle patterns are for this beautiful Earth. We at least need to see that we are causing our own suffering as well as the suffering of others, including the whales. Meeting a whale can in fact open up this whole line of inquiry. It did for me.

However we come at it, we will need to be open to having our entire world- and self-images turned upside down.

That's a good thing, turning your world upside down. It is a blessed relief in the end. But let us not wait so long that the Earth runs out of patience and takes care of that for us.

 

More on this subject

Waves of Stillness

Right Whales

Right Whale Blog Posts

Whales Blog Posts

Of War and Whales (Video)