With blessings…

by Guest Blogger

July 6, 2006

The following posting is from oceans campaigner John, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…

Among many other things, George (our lead oceans campaigner in Alaska) is a former Russian Orthodox Priest. Yesterday he invited Father Jonah Andrew of the Holy Ascension Orthodox Cathedral in Unalaska onboard to bless the boat. Father Jonah was joined in the conducting of the ceremony by George’s wife Leonella and Rufina Shiashnikoff, a powerful Aleut woman who I first met at our meeting with the community here last week.

After the blessing, Rufina spoke about her experience as a three-time cancer survivor. Two of the doctors that have helped her get through it all urged her to “eat the food of her ancestors.” Rufina said it has been a real struggle, because it’s no longer possible to eat many of the kinds of seafood and coastal vegetation her grandparents enjoyed. The wild beaches of her youth have been replaced by industrial fishing docks, and the marine life that she used to catch from shore has gone the way of “localized depletion.”

Craig-the-killer-whale-biologist and Dave-the-cook came on board in Dutch Harbor, and now we are en route to St. George Island, a 24-hour trip. The wind’s gusting to 35 knots, but it’s coming from behind us and so far the swells aren’t too bad. Early this morning, we had a pod of six or seven Dall’s porpoises riding our bow wave, looking a little like a miniature, more hyperactive version of the killer whales we’ll be studying for the next ten days.

There are two distinct types of killer whales in the North Pacific: transients, which feed primarily on marine mammals; and residents, which are largely fish eaters. The two populations share the same waters, but do not interbreed and are genetically distinct. This gives evolutionary biologists fits, because it looks like we are witnessing the divergence of killer whales into separate species without any geographic isolation or mutation to drive the split. Could this be the first known example of behavioral modification leading to speciation?

That’s just one of the questions we’re here to try to answer as we focus our attention on the transient killer whale population around the Pribilofs. We’ll take photos and record vocalizations to identify individuals, take tissue samples to provide information about genetics, contaminants, and diet, and, if we’re really lucky, attach satellite tags to allow us to track their movement.

How many fur seals and sea lions are killer whales eating? Is that contributing to the decline of these species? Or is the million and a half tons of groundfish we remove from the North Pacific each year causing fish-eating seals and sea lions to go hungry? Most indications point to the fishing industry, but in a system as vast and as complicated as this one, the only responsible thing to do is to err on the side of caution as we work to improve our understanding of what is really happening.

– John 

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