I have been running away from writing recently… Or words have been running away from me… Or else I have been too busy running through some of life’s challenges to hear them… But, although words still evade me, I will pause long enough to post part of an article about the American Cetacean Society’s conference which appeared in the January edition of Vision Magazine.
And yes, that is the correct title, I promise it will make sense by the end of this post…
Underpinning this diverse wealth of information ran a strong connecting thread; a sense of coming-together-ness between people of varying backgrounds and opinions. Cetacean conferences are not always this eclectic. Some are purely for the scientific community, with presentations reporting current research areas, methodologies and results. Others are aimed at igniting a spark of activism, urging attendees to take action against the perceived enemies of cetaceans. At this conference, many influences were present in one room together who, although united by a common ground, did not necessarily share the same beliefs, methods or goals.
This was a fundamentally important element both for the conference and what it represents as a model of behavior within the world generally. After all, a conference merely mirrors the larger stage of any human endeavor; where the characters, methods, opinions and agendas of differing groups can be divergent to the point of aggressive opposition. On that broad stage, decisions which impact our planet are made, or not made, on the basis of whether differing factions can hear one another, reach an agreement and take action.
It was exciting to witness this trend of inclusivity and dialogue. The ride was not always easy. Discussions became heated on occasion, with one person’s, or group’s, agendas and beliefs becoming momentarily inflamed. But the discussions remained respectful and rational. The conference was entitled, “Whales and Humans: A Conflicted Relationship”. There was an inherent, comical irony to this, as it was evident how conflicted humans can become without the need for any other creature’s involvement! But, more importantly for the road ahead, the discussions demonstrated clearly how potential conflict can be resolved through committed effort, respect, compromise and good will.
A second fascinating trend was a sense of being in transition. As individuals and societies, humans are constantly evolving and becoming something else. But, there are plateau periods, where a paradigm has been established and not much occurs, and transition periods that are full of action and upheaval, as one paradigm dissolves and a new one emerges.
The ideas which surfaced during this conference reflected a potential dynamic shift. For example, the questions included: if cetacean populations recover and we can no longer use their ‘highly-endangered’ status as rationale for protecting them, what rationale can we apply?; do we move away from a scientific position of defining healthy population numbers to a broader ethical and moral set of parameters?; if so, how do we define ethics, as differing cultures have vastly differing perspectives?; as our species has only recently established the paradigm that all human beings have basic rights, regardless of gender, culture or color, on what basis can we agree a set of rights for another species?; can we establish it on the basis of their being sentient “non-human persons” (as defined by writer and Professor of Ethics, Thomas White)?; if we assert that cetaceans have moral rights, how do we balance these with human rights?
If we are to shift to a new paradigm, one where our relationship with all life is radically re-envisioned, we will have to grapple with many such tough questions, not seeking the quick and easy answers, but processing them thoroughly until new answers emerge from the struggle. Three subjects from the conference provided additional food for thought.
Jeff Friedman spoke on behalf of Hardy Jones from ‘BlueVoice’ about the death of an estimated 900 dolphins off the Peruvian coast in spring 2012. Autopsies carried out by BlueVoice and local marine rescue organization ORCA detected bleeding ears, fractured ear bones, air bubbles in the internal organs and pulmonary emphysema. These symptoms suggest that the dolphins suffered from acute decompression syndrome, possibly induced by repeated acoustic impacts. There remains no universally agreed conclusion about the deaths and the Peruvian government has stated that they were due to natural causes. However, an oil company was conducting seismic exploration in the area at the time and, in BlueVoice’s opinion, is a logical suspect. While this particular incident may seem far removed from American shores, it is pertinent to reflect that two of the main contributors to underwater acoustic disturbances are the navy and energy companies (predominantly oil and gas), both of which America has in plentiful supply.
Marine mammal toxicologist Peter Ross based at the ‘Institute of Ocean Sciences’, Canada, spoke about the toxicity levels in killer whales off the west coast of America and Canada. Pacific transient killer whales are believed to be the most highly contaminated animals on the planet as their position at the pinnacle of the food chain, where they prey on other marine mammals, results in their receiving the most concentrated levels of toxins. These toxins include chemicals used in agriculture, manufacturing and plastics industries. All ocean animals ingest them to a greater or lesser degree and they cannot be broken down or excreted from the body. Instead they remain in an animal’s tissues and organs and, as their chemical makeup resembles that of hormones, the illnesses they are likely to contribute to include immune and reproductive ones.
While ‘VIVA Vaquita’ did not deliver a speech at the conference, they were providing information about a surprisingly little known cetacean and its potential demise. There is a species of porpoise called the vaquita about to become extinct in our backyard. The vaquita lives in a tiny area of the Gulf of California and numbers about 200 individuals. Although their home offers healthy waters, with a plentiful food source, the vaquita are falling foul of fishing methods. The almost invisible gill nets, used to catch shrimp and fish, inadvertently trap and drown the vaquita. The fishing industry in the area is operated by local, small-scale Mexican fishermen, however, much of the catch is subsequently imported into America for consumption.
How we choose to respond to the three subjects above will be crucial to determining where we go next and what results we create. We could choose to expect businesses and governments to shoulder the responsibility of fixing the problems; laying the blame squarely at their feet and relying on their power to deliver answers. However this might be counterproductive if every day we choose to buy coffee in disposable cups with plastic lids, eat shrimp without verifying where it was fished from, and drive cars with big engines. A lasting shift towards a more positive future is unlikely to occur from the masses assuming a powerless, victim role; we have become weakened and lazy from living within the confines of that paradigm for long enough. Perhaps lasting change is more likely to occur if we choose the tougher road of dispelling our ignorance and powerless stance, and instead embracing awareness, discipline, passion, responsibility and courage. A perfect antidote to toxins entering at the base of a food chain and becoming concentrated up the chain, is for new thinking and action to be embraced at the grassroots level and create a spiraling bottom-up approach.
The conference ended with a sharing of ideas for how we can all embrace change in whatever small or large way it is within our sphere of influence to do. Ideas that were offered from attendees, included such simple ones as “carry your own cup everywhere”, “observe nature and keep a record”, “talk to kids and get them outside in the natural world”, “check how and where your seafood is fished”, “watch your personal habits and always leave things better than you found them”.
Sometimes the small things in life are the hardest; they are not exciting, they do not go ‘bang’ and they do not show big results fast. But, it is the small things as well as the large that make a difference, just as it requires the participation of many people from many walks of life. Whatever we make of our world today and tomorrow, we can be sure that it will be a product of us all, whether directly or indirectly. The American Cetacean Society conference served to engender an attitude of positive participation; of choosing freely to be actively involved. Because, after all, who wants to play the cowardly, disempowered sidekick in a movie, when, deep down, we all have the capacity to play a braver, wiser and more honorable role?