“People have become disconnected from the natural world. Children from cities go to the countryside and do not know what to make of the sky because light pollution prevents them from seeing stars. People camping on cliffs on Grand Manan complain they cannot sleep because of the noise of whales breathing out to sea; their lives are so full of background noise that they never usually hear the sounds of nature around them.”
When we are not connected to the natural world we become less connected to the consequences of our actions. At best we have the tendency to be less than thorough when researching all possible outcomes to our actions. And sometimes we remain unintentionally, or wilfully, ignorant of any consequences whatsoever. Laurie is highly aware of our species’ unique capacity for accidentally, or wilfully, creating negative outcomes as a result of our actions. These effects have had, and are increasingly having, a huge impact on our planet and, crucially, on our oceans. Laurie illustrated this with a few examples.
“Throughout history our actions have often been more strongly influenced by the trends of the day than by ethical considerations.” The exploitation of right whales for baleen to service the Europeans’ fashion industry is one such good example. Another is the cultural trend in China for shark fin soup. Historically this dish was only served by the elite, and was an important status symbol. Today, it is becoming increasingly popular as more of the population gain access to a disposable income and “Want to have what others have”.
Many island populations of birds and animals have been wiped out or are threatened as an indirect consequence of our accidental transportation of new species to island habitats. In the Pacific for example, the brown tree snake found its way into the cargo holds of planes and onto islands where it began to predate birds’ eggs, chicks and adults. In the South Atlantic, mice transported on ships found their way on to an important nesting island for the albatross and tucked into their chicks. “On remote islands, these birds have never had to deal with land predators. The chicks and their parents are completely defenceless against a predator they have not encountered before. They have not been able to learn strategies for defending themselves.”
Illegal stowaways aside, shipping is a major challenge for cetaceans today. “In the ocean, sound carries great distances. We are not good at thinking with our ears so we do not perceive the impact of sound in the underwater world. Whales are shouting louder than they did 30-40 hears ago to be heard above the background noise.” One might think that a solution to the noise pollution would be to develop quieter ships. However, even this well intentioned act could have disastrous consequences if not researched fully. Whale-ship collisions are a major cause of whale mortality and serious injury. Even with current noise-producing ships there is a quiet zone directly in front of the ship where no noise can be heard, (due to how sound travels and is deflected by the ocean floor and because the propellers are located at the rear of the ship). If ships were completely noise-free, a whale may never know one was approaching.
Fishing is a contentious and complex issue. “When fishing is carried out for commercial rather than subsistence reasons it will have inherent problems.” People engaged in subsistence fishing have a greater tendency to look after fish stocks, as without the fish there would literally be no food on the table. But when money is the driving force there is an increased tendency to overfish to maintain a certain lifestyle. The fisherman is one step removed from his connection to the natural world. “Fishermen are often very conscious of conserving stocks. But they know that if they do not go out and fish someone else will and they will lose their income. Today’s fishing is complicated by politics and political deals, quotas, competition, conflicting recommendations… Ecologically it makes sense to preserve the oceans but that is not how stocks are managed. And we simply do not know enough to be good managers!”
A current trend is to look youthful. “We have an ageing population who want to remain young and healthy, and avoid consuming toxins.” Because predatory fish are starting to be recognised as being too toxic for our consumption (toxins become concentrated as they progress through the food chain), we are starting to fish lower and lower down the food chain. “We are now turning to catching krill, which is like the foundation of a house; entire ocean ecosystems depend on it. Supposedly we are doing this in a sustainable way, but since estimates of sustainability do not account for all the impacts which the ocean environment is having to cope with, it is questionable whether these estimates are accurate.”
As wild fish stocks are depleted we are increasingly turning to farmed fish. When salmon are farmed they develop lice. To kill the lice the fish are often treated with chemicals released into the water which can leak out of the sea cages. These chemicals kill copepods (a type of plankton, the basis of the ocean food chain, and favourite food of right whales) and other crustaceans because the lice are parasitic copepods (crustaceans). It is as yet unknown whether the chemicals will wash into our oceans to a significant degree that will kill copepods and other life. It is also unknown what other unintentional effects they will have once they mix with salt water and their chemical composition is altered.
Our use of the oceans for travel, food, recreation and industry have had, and always will have, direct or indirect consequences attached. There are so many variables operating it is virtually impossible for us to predict them all, even with the best intentions. I asked Laurie what she believed to be the solution to these many complex interactions of actions and consequences.
“The one factor which has the most damaging impact on this planet is unsustainable population growth. When the population keeps growing, and the need for resources and material goods increases, then any positive changes we make get cancelled out. Population is growing faster than the rate of our positive changes. We are constantly running after ourselves… We need to get ahead of ourselves!”
The most affective change we could make, which would impact on all our other actions, would be to stabilise our wildly increasing population. “If our population remained constant, the environmental improvements we are starting to make would actually make a difference. Economists tell us growth is important. But we cannot afford to keep growing, this adds too much extra pressure. We need a steady state system and we have to stabilise our population. This is the only way for our positive actions to overtake our negative ones.”
Laurie believes this needs to be done hand in hand with developing technology to provide better solutions to allow people to have good standards of living without detrimental side effects. “In the developed countries we need to make improvements to how we exist, so we do not have as great an impact per person. In developing countries it is natural for people to want what we already have; cars, air conditioning, luxury goods etc. Technology needs to provide ways for these things to leave a less damaging footprint, such as solar powered cars.”
Laurie will continue her work and hope that our species will turn a corner and choose to act in ways that have positive consequences. It is likely that if we do not listen to the recommendations of conservationists such as Laurie, and we do not stabilise our population and change our behaviours, then not only the whales, but entire oceans and ourselves will quickly suffer the consequences. Let’s hope we can all improve our listening skills!
As this is my final post on Laurie and Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station, I will leave you with a simple thought.
“The whole ocean is a whale’s home and oceans cover more of the globe than anything else. A human action which may not appear to be critical to an animal in the Bay of Fundy may have a huge impact on them somewhere else. Any action that each and every one of us does anywhere on the planet can and will have an effect somewhere else and increasingly on our vast oceans….”