Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Equal Rights for Whales and Dolphins?

photo credit AFP

Further to my previous Twitter post about dolphins making the front page in The Metro, I thought I'd write a bit about the growing topic of cetacean intelligence and their proposed rights.

You've probably heard about the recent People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) case suing SeaWorld for enslaving its killer whales in their well-known marine amusement parks. Call it genius or call it crazy - this was still the first case that considered giving constitutional rights to a species other than humans. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller ultimately decided to dismiss the case, however he was also the first judge to actually consider it. Despite the dismissal, legal experts are saying the case has opened the debate on the possibilities of increasing the rights of animals.

SeaWorld's main argument was that orcas are not persons, and are therefore not eligible for protection. Said SeaWorld's attorney, Theodore Shaw:

"Neither orcas nor any other animal were included in the 'We the people' ... when the Constitution was adopted."

PETA's attorney, Jeffrey Kerr, argued that the exclusion of these "living, breathing, feeling beings" from "personhood" and defining them as property was the same argument used to justify denying the rights of slaves and women.

"Slavery doesn’t depend upon the species of the slave, any more than it depends upon the race, gender or ethnicity of the slave. SeaWorld’s attempts to deny [orcas] the protection solely based on their species is the same kind of prejudice used to justify any enslavement. And prejudice should not be what determines constitutional rights in this country...Today's decision does not change the fact that the orcas who once lived naturally wild and free, are today kept as slaves by SeaWorld."

Now, I think we're all aware of some of the things that are said about PETA, and honestly...they're not my favourite. But this lawsuit - however much they may or may not have anticipated its dismissal - still did bring up a good point: Should the antiquated practise of keeping animals in captivity for human entertainment still be continued, simply based on the fact that they are not people?

PETA's lawsuit did miss a few notes, good as its intentions were. It failed to establish the whales as "persons", and therefore was not able to argue that they deserved the same protection as humans. Said president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, Stephen Wise:

"We hope PETA will realize that it embarked on a fool’s errand. PETA wrongly believed it did not need to prove that an orca was a legal person, so it failed to be ready to prove that an orca is a ‘person.’ Worse, it actually opposed our legal arguments that an orca is indeed a ‘person’, thus creating a roadblock that we will have to overcome in the future."

The legal definition of a "person" (in short) is an "unspecified individual." Law professor Rebecca J. Huss proposes that "If we can establish corporations as persons, why can’t we establish whales as persons?"

photo credit Kyodo News & AP

Experts across several related fields agree that the cetacean brain is extremely intelligent and that the animals are self-aware and able to think in abstract terms.

"When you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and know that's you, you have a sense of 'you'. They have a similar sense. They can look in a mirror and say, 'Hey, that's me'," explains psychologist Dr Lori Marino of Emory University.

Whales and dolphins also have their own cultures, and are known to pass information such as feeding areas or methods of capturing prey down from generation to generation. This cultural knowledge differs between local populations of a species, illustrating how different groups of individuals will learn to adapt to challenges in their respective environments. Many cetacean species have strong family or social groups and some will remain with their pod for the duration of their lives.

In captivity, a whale or dolphin is not able to behave in its natural ways, and will suffer in the same way a human does in prison. This unnatural - often violent - separation from one's home, family group and way of life is inherently cruel no matter what the species. When we consider the continued practise of whaling by some nations, it cuts a level deeper.

"The science has shown that individuality - consciousness, self-awareness - is no longer a unique human property. That poses all kinds of challenges," say ethics expert Prof Tom White from Loyola Marymount University.

Recently, four former SeaWorld trainers have come together to create a site for the killer whales housed at SeaWorld and to let the public see what really goes on. Called "Voice of the Orcas", the site was created after the four had a change of heart and decided to fight for the whales' rights and wellbeing rather than participate in their captivity.

Earlier this month, Voice of the Orcas released photos which they say show "the true costs of caring for captive cetaceans." Breeding programs through manual masturbation and artificial insemination, tooth loss due do biting down on metal and concrete elements of the tanks, ulcers from stress, and dorsal fin collapse - all conditions that you would rarely or NEVER find in wild orcas.

photo credits Voice of the Orcas

Certainly, if our fellow humans were subjected to these kinds of conditions there would be an outrage - and rightly so. But what about these "non-human persons"? Should it make any difference that a species with similar intellect was born into a different body?

"We’ve shown that qualities that make humans persons are shared with other animals," said Marino. "(They) shouldn’t be treated like property or objects — shouldn’t be confined, captured, slaughtered or exploited and all the things we still do to dolphins and whales," says Marino.

Last weekend the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) met in Vancouver, Canada, where a group of experts in philosophy, conservation and animal behaviour presented the "Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans." Granting cetaceans rights would mean an end to whaling, the captivity of dolphins and whales and their use in entertainment.

The document resolutely declares "Every individual cetacean has the right to life...No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude, be subject to cruel treatment, or be removed from their natural environment", and "no cetacean is the property of any state, corporation, human group or individual."

"The next step is taking the science and advocating for law in different places, from a regional point of view, from a national point of view, and eventually from a multinational and international view," said Chris Butler-Stroud of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

The declaration is not expected to move quickly. There's a cozy spot on the back burner typically reserved for environmental and animal rights issues, while the rest of humanity likes to debate which presidential candidate is the craziest, or how much leg celebrities should show at awards ceremonies. The door is open, though, and cetacean rights will be a thing we will hear about with repeated frequency in the coming years.

What do you think?

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Of Sailors and Seas

photo credit US Navy/Mate 2nd Class Larry S. Carlson

If there's one thing I love, it's a man in a sailor suit. But if there's one thing I hate, it's people who waste my time and my money while they (mostly) hang out (as in are not in combat). And on a boat, nonetheless! (Well, there I may just be jealous...) So what are my feelings when it comes to the Navy? Mixed - at best. But a colleague of mine recently approached me with a pretty cool idea.

Let's have a look at our Navies first. For the purposes of this article, I've chosen to look at the United States Navy and the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom. The US Navy is the largest in the world with 323,700 men and women and a fleet that is greater than the next four largest navies combined. (source) The Royal Navy is a bit smaller with 36,600 men and women and is in the top 25 largest fleets in the world, sixth-largest in the NATO Alliance (the United States being first). (source) (source) Consider the energy and money needed to run fleets that large. Or at least try to, because honestly no one even knows these amounts for sure.

"As the saying goes, facts are many but the truth is one. The truth is that the U.S. military is the single largest consumer of energy in the world...The reality is that even U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) does not know precisely where and how much energy it consumes." (source)

It does go on to state, however, that we do know "The U.S. Navy is the largest diesel fuel user in the world" (as of 2005). In fact, they were even presented with an award for "energy security" that says so.

The Royal Navy has its own concerns:

"According to various sources, including the Ministry of Defence, the UK has the third- or fourth-highest military expenditure in the world, despite only having the 25th largest military in terms of manpower." (source)

And I'm sure we've all heard about the aircraft situation.

But let's get right down to it. How much money is being spent? The annual United States military budget as of 2006 was the largest of any NATO country at $667.7 billion. The Royal Navy came in second at $59.638 billion (or roughly £36.986 billion). We can assume approximately 1/3 of that total is going to the navies of each country, so let's say $222.6 billion for the US Navy and $19.879 billion (or £12.329 billion) for the Royal Navy. Safe to say that's probably more money than you or I could imagine. (source)

So what are they doing with it? Let's have a look at their mission statements:

United States Navy
"The mission of the Navy is to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas."

Royal Navy of the United Kingdom
"Our mission is to:
Defend: UK citizens, territory and trade worldwide.
Deter: Threats to UK peace and prosperity.
Defeat: Hostile acts against the nation."

Well and good, but keep in mind the wars we're actually fighting here - and the people we're fighting against. The US and the UK have been best buddies for a while now, so for the most part it can be assumed that wherever one is, you'll likely find the other close by (minus home ports). The Royal Navy provides this map on their website offering general location of their fleets:

image credit Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, click for larger

Have a look at some of those dots. Proportionally more are close to home ports, not even in areas of conflict, and the ones that are have been fighting "asymmetrical" wars - meaning the sides are not weighed evenly. The US/UK navies are huge, and the terrorist/pirate/insurgent forces aren't much of a match.

Said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2009, "What all these potential adversaries—from terrorist cells to rogue nations to rising powers—have in common is that they have learned that it is unwise to confront the United States directly on conventional military terms." (source)

More often than not, the navies spend their time on patrolling or training exercises, which have their own problems.

So how could we be spending that money a bit better?

Well, I'm sure we all know by now that fish stocks are declining at an alarming rate due to overfishing, marine development, pollution and disruptions in the balance of ecosystems. Perhaps some of our navy boys could do a bit more to protect the seas they live and work on - from an environmental standpoint. If we take a glance back at some of the other tasks the navies are responsible for, we can clearly see listed on the UK site:

"Some of our tasks:
-Helping to police the world’s oceans to prevent international smuggling, illegal trade, terrorism and pollution
-Monitoring the weather and ocean conditions and surveying coastlines and ocean beds"

"Offshore patrol vessels play an important role in UK home waters by enforcing fishery laws and providing a reassuring presence in UK oil and gas fields."

...US, would you like to step up?

So it seems part of the navy's job (the UK at least, although I feel pretty confident the US has similar responsibilities) already includes policing the seas a bit. That's great - because as fish and other marine populations decline, the need for protected marine areas is increasing. These are areas of water important to marine species where human use is limited or completely restricted. It can include regulations on fishing gear, species caught, seasonal use, shipping traffic or any other human activity that might disrupt marine life.

"In the U.S., MPAs span a range of habitats including the open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes. They also vary widely in purpose, legal authorities, agencies, management approaches, level of protection, and restrictions on human uses." (source)
Click here to see US MPAs

"In the UK, MPAs are set up primarily for the conservation of our marine biodiversity and to protect species and habitats of international or national importance. The main types of MPA in the UK are Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). SACs, in addition to Marine Nature Reserves (MNRs) and Special Protected Areas (SPAs) are protected by statutory obligations. The UK also has voluntary MPAs such as Voluntary Marine Conservation Areas (VMCAs) and Voluntary Marine Nature Reserves (VMNRs)." (source)
Click here to see UK MPAs

Recent research suggests that we need to establish MPA networks across 20 - 30% of our oceans. (source). Although there has recently been increased attention to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), currently only 0.7% of the ocean is protected. (source)

Clearly, we need to establish more. So where should we focus our efforts?
Well, for starters we need to cover a little bit of everything.

"Networks must be representative in terms of different ecosystems, habitats and communities and may have different uses and levels of protection within them, but all should include reserves or no take zones (NTZs)...NTZs may be in isolation, surrounded by normal fishing grounds, or form part of a larger marine reserve, managed for nature conservation, with managed buffer zones around the NTZ." (source)

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) emphasize four factors in establishing an MPA: Adequacy to support the success of target species, representability for all of the location's biological processes, resilience in the face of a natural disaster, and connectivity to other MPAs or areas of conservation. This last piece I think is the most important. We hear a lot about "islands" in modern conservation research. Not actual islands, but figurative islands - areas set aside for protection, but with no surrounding ways in or out for animal populations to move and migrate. Connectivity is especially important in a marine environment where there are little to no boundaries and many species will move across entire oceans.

MPAs are beneficial to fish and other harvested or endangered marine species in that they afford a safe place for populations to reproduce, grow, feed and thrive without interference from humans. A big current issue is the overfishing and illegal fishing of species throughout our world's oceans. An increase in the percent coverage of MPAs throughout our oceans would help to deter that. The issue is that protecting large areas at sea has historically been a challenge. Now if only we could get some nice sea-faring people to watch over them for us...

What I'm suggesting is that perhaps we could re-work the non-combat navies to help police and patrol MPAs in their areas. It wouldn't take much to factor this in to existing patrol plans, and it would likely be an easy training exercise new recruits could easily master. And what if more navies participated than just the US and the UK? What if navies from every country helped police their protected areas and those neighbouring their own? More eyes on the water means greater enforcement against illegal and over fishing. And truly, at the end of the day, these navies would still be protecting their territories and their people. Food security is something we're going to be hearing more and more about soon. One-sixth of the world's population relies on fish and other seafood for their main source of protein, and if stocks continue to decline there's going to be a struggle. Not to mention the vast amount of biodiversity and the complex ecosystems we all rely on for a healthy sea. Perhaps we should make an international treaty and agree to protect our greatest resource together, with navies from every country that borders the sea - for our generation and the future's, for food systems and ecosystems, for dolphins, sharks, fish and people.

This article was done in collaboration with EcoHustler. Read his version here.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The "S" Word

The "S" word has been in marine biology news a lot recently. We all cringe at the sound of this word. It calls to mind things like disease, poor health, stress, entanglements, pollutants, and a myriad of other causes we don't yet fully understand. It often means death.

The word is "strandings".

photo credit AAP & New Zealand Department of Conservation

Last month we heard of the 99 pilot whales stranded off Farewell Spit in New Zealand. This area is common for strandings and experts believe it is due to the relatively shallow waters in combination with tidal changes. It has been suggested that in areas like this, the sudden ascent of the bottom topography creates a situation where a whale's echolocation it uses to navigate will bounce around the area, confusing the animal and impairing navigation. Thirty-six whales died during stranding and the New Zealand Department of Conservation decided to put 33 whales down due to repeated re-strandings and significant stress and physical deterioration. Only seventeen whales from the pod were successfully refloated.

A stranding off Queensland, Australia this past summer didn't even get that happy of an ending. A baby humpback was separated from its mother and beached at Moreton Island. The calf was estimated to be only one to two weeks old and would have still been very dependent on its mother for food and protection. Speaking with a local expert on the matter, I found this stranding was particularly controversial - partly because of Sea World's involvement and partially due to the poor execution of the rescue attempts. As you may have seen in an earlier post, it is being debated whether Sea World always has the animal's best interest in mind during a stranding. My source suggested that an additional autopsy would have been beneficial to a certain Sea World vet when this calf stranded. Overall, the execution of the rescue efforts were questioned in that the whale was initially left on the beach while local authorities waited for Sea World responders, after which it was physically dragged back to sea - which would have been remarkably stressful for such a young animal. In the end the whale was euthanized after stranding a second time two days later.

Farther North in Lincolnshire, England another young whale was separated from its mother and stranded in the Humber estuary. Over 50 emergency workers worked for eight hours to dig a trench and successfully lead the whale back to sea where its mother had been spotted. The reunification of mother and calf is crucial in young whales, particularly those who are migrating as they may not yet know the area or direction to swim in.

photo credit Caters News Agency

It is important for scientists to gather data during stranding events (or during autopsies in the case of failed rescues) so that we may come to understand why some of these events occur, how we can better respond and what we might be able to do to avoid them. Following the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of dolphins washed up dead or dying. One particular dolphin is being nursed back to health in Gulfport, Mississippi and is offering information into what caused the death of other dolphins in the area. The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies is currently not at liberty to reveal what exactly their findings have been, but they have said that finding a live dolphin was like "finding the black box from an airplane after a crash."

Recently another mass stranding has been in the news in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Nearly 120 common dolphins have been stranding themselves since 12 January along the coast of Wellfleet. The hook of Cape Cod is another common area for cetacean strandings, much for the same reasons as Farewell Spit. Scientists are troubled by this stranding event because the number of animals involved in just these past few weeks is close to the total number of animals seen throughout the entire year. What's more is that all of the animals appear to be healthy. Despite this, over 80 dolphins have died. Some of the surviving individuals are being monitored by satellite tags to watch where they are going and how they are faring. Generally, the trend seems to be encouraging: the dolphins are swimming out into deeper waters and are not re-stranding. However, a large group of around 400 dolphins has been spotted off the Cape...It is unclear at this time whether they will head into the bay or continue their journey safely on the outside.

photo credit IFAW

So what should you do if you find a stranded cetacean? First of all, contact your local stranding network where experts will be able to instruct you further and make their way to the scene. If you don't know who your local stranding network is, contact animal control or the local police who will be able to help you get in touch with the correct people. If the animal is on it's back or side, and if you have someone to assist you, gently roll the animal onto it's stomach and try to keep it wet with sea water - careful not to get any water in it's blowhole. Minimize your contact with the animal and keep other people and dogs away. Listen to the experts' instructions and be careful. Whales are dolphins are wild animals and a stranded cetacean is in a stressful situation and can injure or transfer diseases to you.

Volunteers are continuing to work along the shores of Wellfleet to rescue the stranded dolphins. If you can, please consider donating to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)'s critical need fund to help these animals.

More information at IFAW, who is leading the stranding response team.