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Watching a humpback whale from a boat off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In this case, who is watching whom?
Photo: Chris Johnson

February 23, 2003
The Ironies of Watching Whales
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

My name is Cynde Bierman and I am the head naturalist on the Cape Ann Whale Watch in Gloucester, Massachusetts (a partner of the Ocean Alliance).

Although I am now on board the Odyssey in the Indian Ocean for a few weeks, one of the most exciting parts of my job back at home in Massachusetts is getting to observe whales day after day. I have spent the last 9 years getting to know almost a third of the 1500 named humpback whales that frequent our waters and watching their individual behaviors, and individual feeding styles. One of the biggest rewards of my job is seeing the same whales return year after year. It's a thrill to see a whale I watched as a calf, grow up and return to Stellwagen Bank with a calf of her own. How exciting to have encounters again and again with a whale I know until I start to wonder what it is about people that whales find so fascinating.

Another thing I love about my job is watching people respond to seeing whales-particularly those seeing them for the first time. I can't count the number of times I've listened to passengers tell about seeing a whale with their own eyes, and had tears in my own.

Unfortunately, that's not the only time I get sentimental when watching these animals. For example: last summer, I had an encounter with an entangled whale-a humpback named Touchdown. I first saw him as a calf and have followed him closely over the years. He is one of the humpback whales we give people a chance to adopt . Last summer he had a piece of line stretched so tightly across his back it was embedded in his blubber. Each time he attempted to lift his tail he couldn't, presumably because of the weight of whatever was suspended from the line, or because of some physical limitation imposed by the line.

Usually when you encounter entangled whales, you see buoys on the entangling line. In Massachusetts, most lobster gear is deployed in shallow water close to shore, and it is only at distances over 12 miles from shore that we find gill nets. Both kinds of gear are held in place by heavy anchors on the ocean floor. The beginning and end of each set is visible from the surface, because it is marked by buoys attached to each anchor line. Between the buoys there are also nylon lines attached either to several lobster traps or in the case of gill nets to a large mesh net. The whales typically get entangled in the anchor lines or in the lines between buoys.

A scar from an entanglement of fishing line on the tail of a humpback whale seen in Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary.
Photo: Chris Johnson

As an indication of how large this entanglement problem is: in the 2002 season there were at least 17 whale entanglements on the East Coast. The Center for Coastal Studies, in Provincetown, Massachusetts has found that even though we may only be seeing 3% of all entanglements each year that almost 75% of the humpback whales around Stellwagen Bank carry entanglement scars on their bodies. Although this is evidence that some whales can free themselves from entanglement in fishing gear, others aren't so fortunate, and some don't seem to learn to avoid nets even after they have become entangled: several humpback whales are known to have been entangled more than once.

Unfortunately, the area where we see most fishing gear is the same area to which we take people to see whales-presumably because whales, lobsters and fish are all attracted to ocean areas with high productivity. It is for the same reason that this same whale-watch area has been declared a National Marine Sanctuary.

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act of 1972 was created to set aside ocean areas with major historical, cultural or natural significance. Since the creation of the Act, 13 such Sanctuaries have been established-including one in the Great Lakes. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, where we watch whales off Massachusetts, is the only such sanctuary in New England.

Stellwagen Bank is an underwater plateau roughly 19 miles long. It varies in width from 2 to 6 miles. The average depth on the bank is only 100 ft (30 m) but the bank drops off around the edges into water 200-300 ft (100 m) deep. Currents hitting the bank are lifted, causing upwelling. In this particular location, it is mostly the coming and going of tides that causes cold nutrient-rich bottom water to come to get lifted up to the surface. Once near the surface sunlight stimulates plankton growth, and the resulting abundance of plankton provides food for an abundance of small fish such as herring, mackerel, and sand eels. These species are fed-upon in turn by whales, seabirds, dolphins, porpoises, blue fish, and stripped bass. All the fish become food for larger fish such as sharks, and blue fin tuna.

All of these creatures come each year to feed in the nutrient rich waters of Massachusetts.

With the amount and variety of life that exists in this ecosystem, it's amazing to me that we humans haven't yet given it better protection. The sanctuary covers 642 square miles of ocean, and as a National Marine Sanctuary is protected from activities such as drilling and dumping that might harm the animals and their habitat. Yet, fishing is still allowed within the sanctuary even though it's a well-known fact that some of the whales visiting this area each year to feed, die by becoming entangled in fishing gear. I cannot help but feel frustrated by the contradictory message the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary delivers. Random trapping and snaring of land animals would not be allowed in National Parks. Surely, it should not be allowed in National Marine Sanctuaries-even if the damage caused by such practices is unintentional.

Boston's major shipping lanes pass right through the center of the sanctuary-a fact that makes life even more treacherous for the whales. The sanctuary was originally set up to protect everything in this habitat-and whales were a major feature of the arguments used to achieve sanctuary status. The Boston region's whale watch industry is also the largest such industry on earth, and is the best place on the East coast of the United States for people to enjoy these magnificent creatures in the wild. It is my job to educate the public about the threats these animals face and to point out to people what they can do to help.

Cynde taking photo-identification shots onboard the Odyssey in the Maldives.
Photo: Chris Johnson

It could be argued that setting aside areas as no fishing zones won't do any good simply because there is nothing to keep whales from moving a few miles and becoming entangled outside the Sanctuary. However, I feel that those responsible for managing Stellwagen Bank are overlooking an important opportunity: most of the fish stocks on the bank could benefit from a halt in fishing to allow them to recover. Even though fishermen usually claim that sanctuaries reduce their catch it has been shown repeatedly elsewhere that when small, no-fishing areas are established within areas where fishing is allowed that fishermen catch as much as twice what they were getting before part of the area was closed to fishing-simply because sanctuaries repopulate surrounding areas. If an experimental program was tried in the waters of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and they were given true protected status, with all fishing halted within the sanctuary, the catch by fishermen in waters adjacent to Stellwagen Bank could be expected to increase, and the entanglements of whales to decrease. This year the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary began its management plan review process, and the public was allowed to comment on the way the sanctuary is being managed. The fishing issue was brought up both by conservationists seeking to ban fishing, as well as by fisherman wanting to keep full access to the fishing grounds. It will be interesting to see what happens as this review process continues.

Being in the Maldives, where local peoples rely all but entirely on the ocean for animal protein, it is striking to me to see how much less gear there is in these waters than in my home waters in Massachusetts. What a welcome relief to find parts of this world where the whales can still swim freely, and the humans can still catch fish and where the ecosystem still prospers.


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