13 March 2006

Save the Whale

Unless you're a hard-core whale hugger, it might be hard to see the significance of the loss of one member of a population of Orcinus orca, a species commonly and misleadingly known as killer whales. But the death of L98, or "Luna," last week in a remote bay on the western coast of Vancouver Island is not only a serious concern for the entire population from which it was separated five years ago, but also serves as another lesson in how science tends to be sacrificed on the altar of respect for superstition.

L98/Luna was about two years old in the spring of 2001 when the rest of "L" pod, members of the "southern residents" orcas that spend their summers swimming and feeding in the cross-boundary waters that separate Canada and the United States in the Pacific Northwest, paid a visit to Nootka Sound, about halfway up the Vancouver Island coastline.

For reasons unknown to the biologists who have devoted their lives to studying the species, the young male didn't follow the rest of his pod back out of the sound and on down to Puget Sound. He stayed behind and spent the next five years making a nuisance of himself, endangering float plane traffic, getting himself scratched up on boats, attracting a small industry of whale watchers and posing something of a dilemma for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

The problem is the whales are a protected species. The southern residents are considered endangered in the U.S. and in Canada. The fact that there are now fewer than 90 left in the population puts enormous pressure on wildlife managers to protect those that remain. Plus, voters love whales and don't like to see them chopped up by propellors.

So the Canadian and American governments ponied up US$200,000 to reunite Luna with his family. They tried rounding him up in 2004. It almost worked, except that members of the local First Nations, the Mowachaht/Muchalaht, suddenly declared that Luna was the reincarnation of a chief that had died just before Luna, now called "Tsux'iit," showed up. They proceeded to physically interfere with the effort to corral L98/Luna/Tsux'iit. Riding out in ceremonial canoes made for great evening-news footage (although offering the whale chocolate bars was probably a bad idea).

Eventually, the DFO crew ran out of money, patience and/or guts and gave up. Luna stuck around for another two years until he was killed after getting a little too friendly with a propellor. Now there's maybe 86 orcas left in the population. Not good news from a ecological point of view. Or from the point of view of the sizable whale-watching industry in the region.

Some say Luna had spent too much time on his own, essentially a juvenile deliquent growing up without the benefit of adult instruction, and would likely have come to a similar end even if he had been reunited with his pod. That's just speculation. The truth is we still know little about orca psychology, learning curves or the transmission of culture.

But we do know a bit about human pyschology. And human politics.

We know that the Mowachaht/Muchalaht made no mention of relocated spirits for the first couple of years of Luna's time in Nootka Sound. We also know the Mowachaht/Muchalaht were engaged in negotiations with the DFO over control of aquaculture operations in Nootka Sound. And we know that one Mowachaht/Muchalaht elder told a Vancouver Island television crew that his First Nation would be perfectly happy to work out a deal to allow for the reunification of Luna and his pod, if only the government would first address their grievances regarding the fish farms. So much for the spiritual angle.

In the end, the southern resident orcas are down another critical member. And the Mowachaht/Muchalaht win only the moral victory of knowing their suspiciously timed tale of reincarnation managed to trump the sincere, science-based efforts of the big bad Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

DFO does have a lot to answer for. Promoting salmon aquaculture in British Columbia's waters, for example, has done little to bolster its scientific reputation. But the time and money spent on saving one whale can easily be justified when you're dealing with such a small population. The reputation of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht, on the other hand, lies in tatters -- or would, if more in the media had told this story a little better.

The lesson is, an irrational deference to mysticism is anything but wise. Yes, it's politically safe not to offend aboriginal communities. But in the end, everyone loses.

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