A few weeks ago, the Portland Press Herald published an op-ed by scientists from the New England Aquarium drawing attention to the urgent plight of the North Atlantic right whale. According to the article, good news – a 41-year-old whale had a new calf this year – was tempered when one of her previous offspring was found entangled in fishing gear. Numbers matter when the species is only about 350 individuals away from extinction. The scientists called on Congress to step up with significant financial support for “a generational transformation” in fishing technology to avoid such entanglements, the potentially lethal effects of which have been observed on 86% of right whales.

In “We Are All Whalers,” Michael J. Moore makes similar points, but from a slightly different, more intimate perspective. Moore, a veterinary scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, has dedicated the best part of his career to the welfare of individual whales. Survival of the species depends on individuals that are healthy enough to mate successfully.

Moore became enthralled with marine mammals during his veterinary studies at Cambridge University in England. Inevitably, the lot of the large whale vet is most often what Moore has called “full-body immersion in rotting whale carcasses, and their associated bacterial soup.” Although he has done his best to devise ingenious methods to treat large whales at sea, all too often the work comes down to “disassembling” them post mortem.

Despite his blunt, clinical language, the author does not shy away from his personal outrage at what he sees these creatures suffering from encounters with human industry. After working on one “tangled mess…the veterinary side of my brain formed an angry, confused resolution to do better by these whales.” Nonetheless, as a scientist, his view remains objective. A stint observing Icelandic whaling practices allowed him a startling conclusion.

An explosive harpoon kills a whale sometimes instantly, occasionally as long as a quarter of an hour, if the crew is “efficient.” By contrast, an entangled whale spends months in agony as the ropes tighten, saw through its blubber, drag its movement down, while sharks gnaw on its extremities. Severe blunt trauma from being hit by a large vessel promises a similar lingering death. Even if the animal does not die, a female whale in such a predicament lacks the energy to produce a healthy calf, or reproduce at all. Thus, Moore considers two paradigms: “whaling with intent” and “whaling by accident,” and the latter is far worse, for both the whale and the species.

Moore recounts his various encounters with dead whales in grisly detail as he worked on body after body on some lonely beach in all weathers. “Disassembling” a whale is not for beginners; one reason he traveled to Alaska to observe the subsistence bowhead whale hunt there was to see how the pros, the Iñupiaq, did it. The experience further confirmed in his mind the dichotomy of situations “where killing whales made some kind of sense, as compared with the senseless killing … where accidental trauma from ships and fishing gear results in a decomposing mess of dead whale” that benefits nobody.


As well as the pathological work on whale carcasses, Moore and his colleagues pioneered some daring contraptions for treating whales at sea, involving long cantilevered poles. This way, he used ultrasound to measure the thickness of the blubber and administered sedatives to whales in trouble. Despite successfully executing their respective missions, these efforts have apparently failed to save a single whale’s life so far.

“We Are All Whalers” leaves little doubt that fishing gear and collisions with large boats are the major threats to the North Atlantic right whale. However, Moore is careful where he lays the blame: as implied by the book’s title, it’s us. “Humans have not been behaving well at all,” he writes with careful British understatement. The strictest vegan is complicit if he or she employs anything that depends on marine transportation.

As for entanglement, Moore is well aware of the need to balance a healthy fishery with healthy whales. Throughout his career, he has earned the respect of whaling and fishing crews. The answer he says, is already technologically feasible. He describes various ways of reducing the amount of rope involved in fishing, including “on-demand, ropeless, buoyless” lobster traps. What we need now is for them to be adopted.

And that will require financial support. It is time for the government to support the changes that will have to be made if the right whale is to survive. Consumers, too, have a role. I can’t help thinking that the value of this book is bringing the problem up close and personal. The threat of extinction is, in the end, an abstraction, compared to the physical suffering of an entangled whale. Who wants to be the cause of that?

Thomas Urquhart is a former executive director of Maine Audubon and author of Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.

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