Subject: whale questions (conservation, abundance, whaling, ESP)

Robert Kenney (
Thu, 10 Dec 1998 17:19:53 -0500

At 14:47 12/9/98 -0600, you wrote:
>Hello Dr. Kennedy,
>I work with an environmental organization called EarthTrust. Recently I
receive a few emails with these questions, and after much research, could
not find the answers. I would appreciate your help.
>1. How much money would it take to save one whale?
That's simply impossible to answer.  Save it from what?  

The US government spent a million or two (maybe more) several years ago to
rescue three young gray whales that had gotten trapped in the ice near
Alaska.  But we don't know whether those whales survived, so maybe nobody
was really saved.  

Over the past ten years or so a few right whales off New England have died
by being entangled in lobster fishing gear.  Those whales could have been
saved if we just shut down the lobster fishery and paid everyone involved
(fishermen, wholesalers, bait dealers, trap manufacturers, ropemakers,
shipyards, truck drivers, fish markets, etc.) what they would have made.
That would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is feasible that the cumulative effect of toxics dumped into the oceans
through all the sewer systems in the North Atlantic results in the death of
an extra whale every year (month, week, decade? - we really don't know).  If
we completely cleaned up every system, we could save that whale - at a cost
of billions or even trillions of dollars.

But - there was a whale that stranded a few years back (a beaked whale, I
think) that died with a plastic bucket stuck in its throat.  It would have
cost the person responsible nothing to not throw his or her empty bait
bucket over the side of the boat, and that whale might still be alive.

>2. Which ocean has the most whales?
The easy answer would be the Southern Ocean, since it is by far the largest.
But I don't really have the numbers to back that up.

>3. How many whales are killed per year?
Commercial whalers from Japan and Norway kill a few hundred each.
Aboriginal whalers in Alaska, Siberia, Greenland, Canada, and some other
places take some, from one or two up to a few dozen.  There may be some
illegal whaling some places in the world, since some meat from protected
species does show up at markets in Asia.  The numbers get bigger if you
count small whales (belugas, narwhals, dolphins) which are harvested in
several places and technically not covered by the International Whaling

Then there are all of the whales and dolphins killed accidentally around the
world by things like being run over by ships, drowning in fishing gear set
for other species, or possibly pollution.

>4. Can animals (especially dolphins and whales) sense danger before it
actually occurs? And if so, how is this possible?
The scientist's answer is that sensing something that isn't there is
impossible, because animal (including human or cetacean) sensory systems are
capable of detecting only matter and energy which is actually present.  A
sensory system capable of detecting something which is going to happen in
the future violates the laws of physics.

Some animals do have sensory capabilities that are so different from the
senses that humans have (which are the only ones that we really have
personal experience with) that they seem almost like magic.  Sharks can
detect very weak electrical fields (as weak as a flashlight battery with one
electrode here in my lab in Rhode Island and the other in Chicago!), so they
can find a fish which is completely buried in the sand just by sensing the
electrical field caused by the fish's heart pumping and its gill membranes
moving sodium and chloride ions out of its blood.  Bees see ultraviolet;
eels can smell one molecule of some things; dolphins hear ultrasound;
elephants and pigeons hear infrasound; baby sea turtles can use the earth's
magnetic field as a compass - I can't do any of those things.

Dr. Bob

 | Robert D. Kenney, Ph.D.              |
 | University of Rhode Island                                        |
 | Graduate School of Oceanography                                   |
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