Encounter

by Marie Michelson

July 20, 2006

The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…

At mid-morning, a ship showed up on the radar: a big one, about 5 miles dead ahead. We hoped the fog would lift long enough for us to get a good view of it from the crow’s nest, thinking it might be a Russian vessel that had slipped over the border to fish in U.S. waters. There’s a large pollock fishery in Russian waters just a few miles to the west, fishing the same pollock stock being fished in the U.S.—the pollock circulate around the Bering in an endless flow between deep and shallow waters, between warm and cold. The Russian fleet has been catching about 500,000 metric tons of pollock a year recently, and much more than that in years gone by. Rampant illegal fishing there means the real numbers are almost certainly much larger. But these numbers aren’t taken into consideration in determining whether the U.S. pollock fishery in the Bering is sustainable. We go on acting as though they are different fish in a different ocean, separated by a concrete wall rather than an imaginary line. And OUR fish are doing just fine, thank you.

When the distance between us had fallen to 4.5 miles, the other ship began to move out of our path, following a track to the northeast at a high rate of speed. We were near the end of a leg, so we cut it just a bit short and changed course to try to come closer. But it was moving too fast. Using the whale research as an opportunity, we hailed it to try and determine what it was doing out here. The operator came back with a heavy accent. Filipino, Bob and Adam agreed. Certainly not Russian. They hadn’t seen any whales, but were otherwise cagey about what they were doing. The heading they gave paralleled the U.S.-Russian border, perhaps 10 miles on the U.S. side. It might have been a Russian patrol boat, except for that accent. It could be a fishing boat, but without a good look at it we couldn’t tell. When the fog lifted, it was gone.

Shortly after that, we entered the heart of our search area, and tightened our pattern to cover as much of it as possible. In an effort to use every whale-finding tool at our disposal, I cycled through my entire repertoire of whale calls, starting with the straightforward “Here, whale, whale, whale!” When that didn’t work, I tried an assortment of seafood-related enticements. “Krill! Get your fresh krill here!…Herring! Cold, salty herring!….Arctic cod! All you can eat!”

I thought for sure the cod call would bring ‘em running (or swimming), since many of the sightings here in 1999 were associated with schools of cod. But no luck. Craig, our cameraman, suggested that the whales couldn’t hear me so well up in the air, and maybe I should try sticking my head under water. But personally, I think the problem was not one of biology but linguistics. English is one of the most complex languages to learn and I have no idea how many whales speak it. I plan to spend the evening translating my calls into Humpback, so we can try again tomorrow. If I can just convince them we have fish, I’m sure they’ll head our way.

The Japanese government has tried to use this obvious fact—that whales eat fish—to justify it’s program of “scientific” whaling. Rather than acknowledge the problem of overfishing, Japan argues that fish are disappearing because there are too many whales in the ocean. That’s right: too many whales. To prove its point, Japan killed more than 900 whales this year in the Southern Ocean, cutting them open to check their belly contents, then turning the rest into steaks no one will ever eat. It plans to add the endangered humpback to its lethal research program in 2007. You know, to save the fish.

The problem I see with Japan’s argument is this: Whales have been eating fish for millions of years. And for millions of years, the ocean got along just fine with them doing it. I wish I could say the same for trawlers. Or whalers for that matter.

-Carroll 

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