Roger Payne

Gulls That Eat Whales Alive

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By Roger Payne

The photo above by Judith Scott of WhaleWatchSA.com shows a cape gull biting into the skin of on a South African, Southern Right Whale’s back—a behavior not previously reported in South African waters, though southern right whales are well studied in South African waters.

It is the same behavior we first observed in 1980 from kelp gulls in the waters of Argentina’s Península Valdés. Scott’s photo demonstrates that it has recently appeared on the opposite side of the South Atlantic.

Kelp gull, Cape gull and Dominican gull are different names for the same species (Larus dominicanus). It is the southern hemisphere equivalent of the northern hemisphere’s black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) the world‘s largest gull. Kelp gulls are so similar to black-backed gulls they have sometimes been considered a subspecies of black-backs.

Feeding on live whales doesn’t seem to be a matter of one-trial learning for these gulls. Perhaps it takes them a long time to build up enough courage to feed on the skin of a live right whale. Such caution is a good idea; a killer whale has been seen, on the outer coast of Península Valdés, striking with its tail at a gull that pecked it, and though that gull narrowly escaped, the stomach contents of killer whales often include the toenails of several gulls. It seems right that even though biting pieces out of live right whales has been going on in the Península Valdés population since the 1980s the behavior took months and years to reach its current frequency. So where did the South African kelp gulls learn this behavior? One possibility could be by watching western, South Atlantic kelp gulls in an area where western and eastern populations overlap.

The excellent map by T.D. Smith, et al of the distribution of the whales that were seen and killed during the days of sail, between 1780 and 1920, shows a band of right whale captures and sightings running roughly from east to west across the South Atlantic between Península Valdés and South Africa. It strongly suggests that southern right whales once occupied the waters of those latitudes all the way from South America to South Africa and beyond. But in modern times although both Península Valdés and South Africa host large populations of southern right whales, no one has reported a known South African right whale in Valdés, or a known Valdés right whale in South Africa.

The islands of Tristan da Cunha and Gough lie about halfway between South Africa and Valdés, and South African right whales have occasionally been seen there, as have Valdés right whales.

Is the same pattern true of kelp gulls?  It would be interesting to know the home ranges of kelp gulls, and how far from their nesting colonies they venture. The Avibase bird checklist classifies the present status of kelp gulls in Tristan da Cunha as “Rare/Accidental.” This suggests that it is probably not a place where western and eastern kelp gulls learn new behaviors from each other if all gulls must see this behavior several times before daring to feed on live right whales. (Orcas are omnipresent and it seems likely that South African gulls are aware that it is not safe to feed on them.)  Adoption of the behavior would require gulls from both sides of the Atlantic to be present on the same days, during the same period that right whales are present, and in several days of good weather (on rough days waves breaking over the backs of whales reduces the frequency of gull attacks). These requirements suggest that the behavior photographed by Scott may constitute an independent discovery by an eastern south Atlantic kelp gull. If I am wrong and the behavior was an import from Península Valdés it suggests that once a new behavior has gained wide acceptance in a population, it can jump even to distant populations.

 At Valdés, mussels are the preferred food of kelp gulls (there are fewer attacks on whales at low tide, when mussels are available to gulls, than at high tide when they are not). At present the population of kelp gulls around Península Valdés is abnormally high, and it is likely that feeding on right whale skin constitutes a significant proportion of the Valdés kelp gull diet.

When this behavior began, most gull attacks were on adult whales but the adults have since learned how to raise just their heads to breathe and their heads are covered with callosities which are probably too fibrous and tough for a gull to be able to carve off a piece with its bill. However newborn calves have to breathe on average once every 20 seconds and it takes them much of their first season to learn how to catch breaths in a way that avoids being attacked. As a result, it is the calves that are the principle focus of gull attacks (calf skin is also presumably tenderer then the skin of adults).

Right whales are accessible to gulls around Península Valdés because the waters there are so shallow that when swimming underwater a Right Whale can usually be seen from above by a flying gull. So the gulls just follow them from one surfacing to the next. If the whales swam deeper, the gulls would be unable to see them well enough to follow. However, in the areas of the Valdés bays much frequented by Right Whales, the water is too shallow and often too clear for a Right Whale to get deep enough to be invisible from above. They also have a preference for staying in shallow water most of the time with other mothers nearby as a protection and herding mechanism.

Gulls are seldom seen very far from shore so another way right whales could avoid them is to take up residence further offshore than kelp gulls are found. That might even explain, in part, why western, North Atlantic right whale mothers don’t keep their newborn young near shore even though we know from watching southern right whales that hugging the coast offers right whale mothers a major advantage if their calves are attacked by killer whales. Valdés right whale mothers keep their calf as close as possible to the shore, and when orcas attack a mother/calf duo, the mother interposes her body between her calf and the approaching orca. This pushes the calf into water too shallow for the orca to attack it from below. Also, orcas can’t maneuver as freely in very shallow water. If a group of orcas press the attack the mother cocks her tail sideways—a threat that is clearly understood by the orcas, for they leave immediately.  Right whales are tail fighters. Their tails are deadly weapons when slashed laterally (a behavior that the long-tailed, vegetarian dinosaurs are believed to have practiced).

From these observations, one begins to suspect that gulls may have a much larger effect in shaping the lives of whales than that for which they have hitherto been given credit. It seems likely that over the years, gulls, and perhaps other seabird species too, must have learned to feed from more than one species of baleen whale. The most vulnerable would be those that spend the longest times at the surface. Besides right whales, this includes, at least, bowheads, gray whales, humpbacks, and sperm whales. (The rorquals are largely out of the running as they usually spend very little time at the surface—not enough to give a gull long enough to approach, descend, land, and bite out a piece of flesh.)

Sperm whales aren’t attacked because they dive for periods of an hour or more, are seldom seen near shore, and usually dive so deep they can‘t be followed from above, even when in the clearest, mid-ocean water. However, because gulls seldom fly more than a few miles off shore,  all whale species are safe from their attacks if they stay beyond that distance. However, when farther offshore, right whales face a problem from orcas, because offshore almost always means deep water wherein any whale species is more vulnerable to orca attacks.

It is possible that bird attacks may explain the former absence of humpback whales around Hawaii. Currently, Hawaiian waters are one of the main winter destinations of North Pacific humpback whales. Yet humpback whales were almost never reported by the crews of the Arctic bowhead whaling fleet that overwintered in Hawaii in the 19th century, even though they anchored in what is now an area off Maui where you can hardly look out to sea in winter and early spring without seeing humpback whale blows. This suggests that humpback whales may appear and disappear from particular coasts over the years, just as right whales are known to do. But what is the cause? Back in the time of the Arctic bowhead hunt, humpbacks were not yet the main quarry of whalers, and it is unlikely that hunting was responsible for causing populations of Pacific humpbacks to move around. Their baleen is of little value, they swim too fast to catch easily, and killing them is particularly dangerous (as a Norwegian whaler famously put it when whaling was done from small boats: “I do not like to kill the humpback; No. No. No. No. No.”).

It seems much more likely that bowhead whales would attract gull attacks, because bowheads spend most of the year near shore and black-backed gulls have a circumpolar distribution. I have always been impressed by how similar to right whale behavior bowhead whale behavior is. It is possible that one of the advantages bowheads gain from never taking more than short sorties out of pack ice into pack ice-free waters is that the pack ice offers protection from above against bird attacks. The ice could enable them to stay in water that provides abundant nutrition without the gulls driving them into more marginal, lower latitude habitats where they would have to compete with right whales.

In pack ice bowheads can follow each other underwater (by some as yet unknown, non-visual technique) from one breathing hole to the next, but presumably an above-water observer like a gull would find if all but impossible to follow them in pack ice. To a gull that is looking for signs of life in moving ice, bowheads will appear in an unpredictable spot, take a few breaths and vanish. The gulls cannot follow the whale to the next breathing place, the way they can in Valdés where they just laze in the water next to a whale or make brief flights above a submerged right whale waiting for it to surface for a breath and then attack. Gulls might watch and learn where a breathing gap is in pack ice by seeing blows there from a bowhead, but the bowheads can easily avoid gulls by using different breathing holes for the next breath. The holes are much less visible from above than from below, because from below they are the best illuminated features, whereas from above breathing holes are just another one of thousands of dark spots that may or may not be deep enough to go all the way through the surface ice to below it.

 One imagines that right whales endure gull attacks as long as they can and then set out in search of a gull-free area, or an area where no living gulls have seen other gulls bite pieces out of living right whales. Once again, I am not implying that these are concepts that would guide the behavior of a right whale or a gull, I mean only that during future travels, having left an area where they are attacked, right whales might linger in a new area if they found it suitable and did not experience gull attacks there.

Of course, a good place for whales to find inexperienced gulls would be tropical waters, because gulls don’t live in the tropics. (I remember being shocked to discover that gulls are absent from Hawaii, Sri Lanka, and the Seychelles and that it is crows, and to a lesser extent tropic birds, that occupy traditional gull niches in the tropics.)

The question we have yet to answer is why right whales abandon areas they may have occupied for many years, even sometimes returning to that same areas after several decades of absence. Something is causing them to leave one area to occupy another. Whatever the cause, the timing of its appearance and disappearance has a lot to say about what the cause of this behavior may be. It does not take centuries, geological ages or epochs for right whales to abandon one area and move to another; it doesn’t happen in a few weeks or months either; Times between moves seem to be years and decades.

A behavior like avoiding gulls that learn to attack them fits such a schedule. Kelp gulls have an average life span of 30 years, so any right whales that successfully reoccupy an area where the gulls once molested them would have to wait at least thirty years before returning if they were to avoid any gulls still alive that have the knowledge that it is safe to attack a right whale.

Regardless of whether feeding on right whales by South African gulls was an independent invention or was imported from Valdés, I believe the only hope right whales have for survival anywhere is for all populations that live near shores to find satisfactory, near-shore locations where the local human population welcomes their presence and doesn’t start killing them or even unintentionally creating obstacles that reduce their chances of survival.

As mentioned above, it seems reasonable to assume that when gulls start biting pieces out of surfacing whales (something that other seabirds may also learn to do someday), it eventually causes the whales to abandon that area and move to where gulls have not yet learned the behavior. It seems clear that back in 1789 something caused right whales not to be in the Península Valdés bays in the numbers they are now. 1789 was the year that Spain built a fort at the back of the same sandy beach in Península Valdés’, Golfo San José, off which one of the world’s greatest concentrations of right whales is now found. The fort was abandoned following a massacre by the local Tehuelche tribe in 1810, and was not reoccupied.  The fort’s history has been well documented but there is no indication that its Spanish occupants saw whales there.  Had there been a large population of right whales present as there is now, one can expect that the Spanish would probably have exploited it or at least reported its presence. The baleen of right whales was very valuable back then and Spanish Basques had been whaling from the coast of the Bay of Biscay since the 10th century—making them the earliest European whalers. But so far there is no evidence to indicate that while the fort was occupied there was any whaling for right whales, or even reports of their presence in Golfo San José. A few years later, when the American right whaling fleet moved into the South Atlantic, some of its boats found so many right whales in Golfo San José that it took that fleet five years to destroy the population.

This history demonstrates that even at peak population right whales were absent from an area they later occupied in force. It shows that something is responsible for them moving from one area to another. I believe that a likely cause is bird attacks, from which I conclude that because whale watching has become a major industry there, if right whales are eventually driven out of Península Valdés it will have a serious impact on the region’s economy.

However, that is really a secondary effect; the people of Chubut are resourceful and have recovered from other serious economic blows before. As for the whales, surely there are many kilometers of beaches elsewhere in South America that they could occupy. However, the same people who would suffer most if the whales abandon Valdés have a quality that is unique in my experience: when it comes to protecting and understanding what these whales require, and to making sure that that information is part of their children’s education, the people of Chubut are the best informed, most active population of advocates for whales that I know, anywhere in the world–and I am well calibrated in this respect.

For this reason, I conclude that it is very unlikely there are other unoccupied coasts anywhere in the western South Atlantic that the Argentine population of endangered southern right whales might occupy in which they would have as good a chance for survival as the one they currently have along the Chubut coast.

Another characteristic of an area satisfactory to Right Whales is shown by their preference for shallow water with a sandy or muddy bottom that is free of rocks. Such areas are uncommon along the South American coasts in latitudes the Right Whales prefer; there it is rocky bottoms that are most common. The same is true of the South African latitudes that are frequented by Right Whales.

In summary: I believe that the loss of right whales in the waters of Península Valdés would be a disaster not just for the people but for the whales. For all of these reasons it is my reluctant opinion that the only way to prevent an otherwise inevitable loss for both people and right whales is to reduce the population of Kelp Gulls.

I fully realize that making such a suggestion can only damage my reputation, for I have spent 50 years focused on trying to conserve many forms of ocean life—not just whales. However, the fact that I nevertheless suggest that the kelp gull population be reduced at Valdés is indicative of how serious I believe the problem is that the gulls are causing right whales.

Kelp gull populations recover quickly. Their close relative, the Northern Hemisphere, black-backed gull—a species, as I have noted, that some consider to be the same as the kelp gull—was brought to near extinction when its feathers were used to decorate hats. However, it recovered fully and the IUCN Red Book now gives Dominican gulls the status of: “Least Concern.”

 Recently lots of southern right whale calves died. We don’t yet know for sure what is killing them. It appears not to be infections of the wounds the gulls make. But most calves have many. Once a gull has opened a lesion, it and other gulls repeatedly aim at the lesions, enlarging them over time so that some calves have no skin left in the region of their backs that are exposed to air when the calf surfaces to breathe as the result of hundreds, even thousands, of bites. To put it differently; they are great, open sores, many of which are the size of scatter rugs.

This means they must cause calves serious grief. Simple loss of water and other bodily fluids is one consideration. They must, at the least, be painful, particularly when brushed against by the mother—for right whale mothers frequently stroke their calves with their flippers.

Lest one get the impression that calf loss at Valdes has not been a serious problem: In the seven seasons between 2007 and 2013 a total of 563 right whales were found dead, 97 percent of which were calves. This means that anything that weakened calves in that time period is, at the very least, a cause for concern, even though we still don’t know what the principle cause for this period of high calf mortality.

It seems safe to assume that calves are weakened by the wounds the Kelp Gulls create in their backs and any stress this causes them may increase their vulnerability to a variety of other factors. There is a chance that whatever caused the massive calf die-off mentioned above has stopped, because even though the attacks by gulls have not stopped, the rate of high calf mortality has. Nevertheless, about 30 dead calves are seen each year but that is the expected loss rate for a population this size.

If the attacks are allowed to continue and the whales leave the waters around Península Valdés but after an interval of decades, a remnant population returns from some distant elsewhere, the local Chubut citizens will have lost their knowledge about these whales and of how to ensure their wellbeing. Furthermore, during the whales’ absence from Chubut structures may have gotten put in the bays that make the whales’ lives more difficult. Local peoples will also have to be re-motivated regarding what the needs of this rare species are. This will require the organization of groups that promote the welfare of right whales—a task that takes years and that can be derailed even by minor political missteps. The behavior of the current Chubut administration must be praised for having wisely responded so positively to the local Chubut citizens keen interest in the wellbeing of their whales. It is for this reason, and with emphasis on the fact that the stress caused by constant gull attacks (of the gull wounds) must weaken the whales, that I believe it is critical to reduce the gull population, and that if it is not done the whales are likely to abandon the area. The 563 right whales that died between 2007 and 2013 was, of course a minimum count of the mortalities—we could only count corpses that we were able to find. Any that were carried out of the bays by wind and tides or were whales that were killed and eaten by sharks or killer whales before they stranded on some beach would increase that mortality.

The fact that kelp gulls have now initiated the same behavior in South Africa should also, I believe, be treated as an emergency, and as soon as possible the gulls there should be reduced in number—hopefully, soon enough to prevent the spread of this behavior along the entire South African coast.  Though a dire recommendation, I believe that reducing the gull population, is better than doing nothing—something that seems bound to result in a much worse future.

If the idea of culling gulls is as repugnant to you as it is to me, it may help to know about another recent behavior that South African kelp gulls have invented. It takes place in Dorob National Park, which lies along the coast of Namibia and includes a colony of several thousand Cape “fur seals,” (the sea lion, Arctocephalus pusillus). The gulls have learned to attack newborn Cape fur seal pups by pecking out and eating their eyes. Once the pup is blind the gulls attack and eat such soft tissues as the genitals, the anus and the underbelly—a ghastly trauma to which the blinded pup eventually succumbs. It is not a rare activity; over 15 years of study, scientists working in the area have seen kelp gulls attack newborn Cape fur seal pups over 500 times. About half the attacks were successful enough that the gull got to eat the pup’s eyes. Whatever else can be said about culling kelp gulls, if the population is temporarily reduced, it will at least benefit right whale calves and newborn Cape fur seal pups.


The Embodiment of Beauty

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By Roger Payne

What is the wild animal that is so prized for its meat that single specimens sell every day for enough to buy not just one, but two new cars, or even a small house?

Surprisingly enough, it is a fish: the bluefin tuna. I was 25 when I first encountered this magnificent, high-speed, migratory, predatory, archetypical creature. I fell in love with bluefin tunas, and they retain a firm hold on my heart. It’s not because I want to catch one—I’m not a fisher—it’s because bluefin tuna are such spectacularly beautiful creatures: the color of deep ocean water—a kind of blue you only experience if you swim in the open sea, hundreds of miles from shore; a color that has no equal in any terrestrial elsewhere; an inexpressible blue that makes these magnificent creatures one-with-the-sea, not just ocean occupants, ocean enhancements.

Bluefin tuna have a worldwide distribution in temperate and tropical waters. They can dive to depths of 1,000 (or more) meters (3,280 feet). Three species are known: Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern bluefins. Each is a top predator in its waters. The Atlantic bluefin is the largest of the group. The biggest ever caught was 4.58 meters (15 feet) long and weighed 684 kilos (1,505 pounds). They can live 40 or more years but require seven or more years to reach sexual maturity. Although bluefins pose no danger to humans, to small fish of every species I suspect they represent predatory “shock and awe.” Bluefin tuna sprints have been clocked at 70km/hour (over 43 mph). They generate and consume exceptional amounts of energy. Such production and consumption of energy produces heat, and that enables them, unlike the vast majority of fish species, to keep their brains, eyes and core muscles warm. Presto… a warm-blooded fish. A fish that can keep its brain warm has a great advantage when chasing smaller, cold-brained fish, because warm brains can think, calculate, and respond a lot faster than cold brains can.

We usually think of fish as being more primitive than us mammals. But every species of every kind, from bacteria on up (and sideways) is the pinnacle of its own 4.5 billion years of evolution, just as we are of ours, just as bluefin tunas are of theirs, just as earthworms are of theirs. Every living species is the very latest version—the very most up-to-date response to trying to fulfill the requirements of the niche it occupies. (Just as we are.) Every species, whether a gnat or a bluefin tuna, has been tested thousands of times in the course of its evolution, and those of its forebears that survived have made an adequate choice every time.

If you prefer to think of progress as a march towards species diversity, then as Jonathan Balcombe puts it in his enthralling book, What a Fish Knows:

“About half of the species of fishes we see on the planet today… underwent an orgy of speciation just 50 million years ago, and reached a peak of diversity around 15 million years ago, when the ape family, Hominoidea, to which we belong, was also evolving.

So about half of fish species are no more ‘’primitive” than we are. But the descendants of the early fishes have been evolving eons longer than their terrestrial counterparts, and on these terms fishes are the most highly evolved of all vertebrates…

We tend to think of the last 65 million years as the Age of Mammals, but teleost fishes have been diversifying much more during that time… The largest terrestrial mammals died out thousands or millions of years ago when mammalian diversity flourished. The true age of mammals is over. The Age of Teleosts may not sound quite as sexy, but it’s more accurate.”

There are fisheries for bluefin tuna in shallow waters, mid waters, and deep ocean, and they are caught with pole and line as well as with traps, purse seines, longlines, and driftnets. They migrate vast distances between feeding and spawning areas, though little beyond the barest facts is known about their behaviors.

The spawning grounds of the Atlantic bluefins are more well-known than their feeding grounds. One spawning area is in the Gulf of Mexico. The two other, best-known areas are in the Mediterranean. The larger of those is in the western Mediterranean, and it produces far more bluefins than either of the other two grounds. When migrating between their feeding and spawning grounds Bluefin Tuna are the ultimate travelers. They swim across the entire Atlantic Ocean and back each year. There are claims that an individual that was caught, tagged and released on the west side of the Atlantic, was re-caught on the east side just nine days later. The terrestrial equivalent would be to see a lion on a New Jersey beach (though even the biggest lions are only slightly more than half the weight of the biggest bluefins) and nine days later to receive an email from a friend in West Africa with a picture she just took of the same lion walking through her backyard.

When I was an undergraduate in biology there was a graduate student in the Harvard Biology Lab named Frank Carey. We became friends, and later, while I studied owls at Cornell, moths at Tufts University, and whales at Rockefeller University, Frank was studying large mid-ocean fish. He soon learned that Bluefin Tuna can keep the temperature of their brains and body-cores several degrees higher than the temperature of the seawater through which they swim. Fishing wasn’t Frank’s forte but he needed big, mid-ocean fish for his research. He befriended some Portuguese fishermen who were skilled at catching tuna. It was a great bunch of guys, and they loved Frank’s company as much as everyone did who ever met the guy. One day he invited me to help him empty a fish trap of Bluefin Tuna. His his friends had built it. He told me they had been catching bluefins that weighed as much as cattle. That seemed to me like a bit of an exaggeration, until we arrived at the trap and found eight, gigantic bluefin 
tuna in it. It took three of the strongest men in our group to pull each fish into the boat. One of them had checked the trap ten hours earlier and found it empty. But in the interim, those eight bluefins had wandered into it and had, as Frank explained, soon exhausted the oxygen in the water and drowned. He had also studied how much oxygen tuna require and had deduced that when they are stationery there’s not enough water moving across their gills to keep their blood sufficiently oxygenated. So they have to swim forward constantly just to stay alive.

The fishermen’s trap was a circle of tall stakes driven into the ocean floor, with netting stretched around its circumference. The trap’s entrance faced the shore towards which another net made a bee line from just inside the entrance to the trap. Bluefins following the coast would encounter that net, turn seawards to get around it and the leader net would guide them into the trap. The water volume embraced by the trap was about four meters deep by 15 meters across. But even though the tidal currents freely filled and emptied it frequently, the trap’s volume was too small to support eight large Bluefin tunas.

With the massive fish in the boat I could look at them closely, and, could touch them. There are no words… They were simply the most stunning animals in whose close presence I had ever been and have ever been. Their extravagant beauty, massive size and perfection of line left me in awe. Every time I have seen that species since, those same qualities have triggered the same reaction. Their color, body shape, solidity, texture, sheen, curves and cambers still have no equal in my experience. They are built for speed—cheetahs of the sea, many have called them. They are propulsion made manifest—high-performance, underwater, ultra-athletes. Before I saw those bluefin tunas I had no particular interest in fish, but ever since I have been captivated by bluefins as well as by the other species of giant, mid-ocean fish. Probably because most of them live in what I think of as the world’s most compelling environment—deep ocean.

However, the ultimate feature of bluefins that newly amazes me each time I see it is but a tiny detail of their anatomy. It is the perfect little slots that bluefin tuna have in their bodies into which they can fold their fins, thereby entirely removing fin drag. Once settled in its slot a fin becomes so flawlessly flush with the fish’s body surface that you have to look closely to see even the smallest evidence of its presence. This is also true of the little trim-tab-like finlets that adorn the top and bottom of bluefins’ bodies, between the tail and the tallest, dorsal and ventral fins. Unlike the larger fins, the finlets aren’t aligned with the Bluefin’s long axis, they lie at an angle to it—an angle that the fish can adjust. Yet those finlets can also be folded out of sight. It is clear that when a bluefin tuna wants the best streamlining and lowest drag in order to achieve maximum speed, it can pull in its door handles, mirrors and hood ornament, until they are flush with its body, and take off like a meteor. Pure magnificence, “Brute beauty, and valour and act… the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”

And there was also that eye. We humans are drawn to eyes—moved by them, prepared always to empathize with an eye. They command attention—speak a wordless language. What had the eye of that tuna seen? What events had drawn its gaze? In how little light had it perceived images of a companion or of some delicious delicacy it could swim down (for bluefins can swim down every small fish in the sea)? Did it thrill to sunsets? To dawns? To storms? Did the owner of that eye linger in, or make side-trips to coral reefs just for the sheer pleasure of being immersed in all that beauty? And if it did, did it snack while there on some of the unspeakably colorful hors d’oeuvres that we so unimaginatively call reef fish? And how did it respond when it looked up through clear, mid-ocean water from 100 meters down and saw that circle of light into which the whole sky is always compressed? How had its vision shaped the bluefin’s worldview? And how had the bluefin’s’ worldview shaped its vision?

The bodies of the bluefins in our boat were so smooth and glistening I could see my reflection in their flanks. But as we drove back to port their skin dried off. But nevertheless, it retained an almost optical finish in which I could still see a blurry/shadowy kind of half-reflection of my head.

I asked the fishermen what they planned to do with this stunning catch? They replied; “No one around here eats bluefin tuna; there’s no market for them. But we’ll probably cut one up and give it to some of the local families that don’t get to eat meat very often. We’ll sell the rest to the pet food buyer in Boston, or maybe we’ll just barrel them up and keep them for lobster bait.”

How all-too-human; what do we humans do when we encounter such perfection (whether it’s a whale or the most magnificent fish in the sea—or as I would argue, the most beautiful denizen of the planet’s loveliest habitat)? We sell it for pet food or use it for bait. Is it a failure of imagination? A lack of vision? A dimness of wit? All three?

But this story about bluefins took place more than 57 years ago. I am now in my 80s and alas, Frank Carey died years ago. But Oh, how things have changed in the interim! Pacific bluefin tuna are now considered to be the best sushi in the world. They have become, pound-for-pound, the most valuable fish in the sea. In 2016 a single Pacific bluefin tuna sold for $1.76 million (yes, that’s not a misprint). However, the buyer was the owner of a chain of sushi restaurants in Japan and he intentionally overpaid. It was a stunt to create the perception that his sushi must be the best in the world because it cost so much (although price doesn’t equate with flavor). He knew that overpaying would give him plenty of free advertising for his sushi chain. And it did; it went viral internationally, in all media.

But even without such advertising tricks, the true cost of Pacific bluefin tuna is now so high that large, prime, individual fish do, indeed, sell for $60,000 to $80,000 apiece. And what does the news that someone just paid such a price for a single fish trigger in Homo sapiens (“the hominid capable of discerning”)? Well, the hominid capable of discerning succumbs to a frenzy of greed, and overfishes every super expensive species to near extinction, and at warp speed. Explosive exploitation of any living resource invariably destroys it and with it the prosperity it could otherwise have brought had it been exploited sustainably. The disaster occurs because what is being gained gets paid for by what is being lost. And what is being lost is the future.

Every fishery needs a plan, and laws which can ensure that it’s fished sustainably. Until such a plan is agreed and subscribed to, killing bluefin tuna or any fish unsustainably will always result in the species becoming economically extinct, or worse—biologically extinct.

It used to be that humans fished every fish species that had an ocean-wide distribution sustainably. But that was simply because our ancestors were too few and their technologies too unsophisticated to enable them to exhaust a worldwide species. But now we are so numerous and our gismos so crafty that as soon as any fishery catches fish that command a premium price, it triggers an insatiable global demand that is inevitably satisfied at the expense of the quality of life of future generations—both of fish and of people. And as for honoring and respecting the millions of years of evolution it takes to create a species of such incomparable value and stunning beauty… forget it. My long life has taught me that our species can be relied upon to use every excuse it can invent to keep on squandering the chances to fish sustainably, thereby sending one incalculably valuable species after another to the trash heap of history. It is a sure bet that because of their price, Bluefin Tuna will be fished down so close to extinction that even a minor natural disaster may be enough to push them over eternity’s cliff into oblivion. In fact, they’re already teetering on that brink.

Meanwhile, we will continue to ignore the value of a healthy ocean teeming with such splendid creatures—although if we let bluefins recover they would offer rewards so vast it beggars the imagination. We can no longer even imagine what the world was like before our forebears’ unenlightened reflex to overexploit erased the oceans’ incalculable fecundity.

And we will continue to ignore the need for saving the planet’s most magnificent creatures, just as we ignore the need to save the land, the water—even the air we breathe. But we won’t stop there; in order to make our reckless behavior seem more right, more acceptable, we will continue to throw our greatest efforts into defending the indefensible and justifying the unjustifiable.

If you think that I am being unfair about humanity’s collective, universal, time-tested myopathy, let us take a moment to check on where things stand for the three uniquely beautiful and bountiful species of bluefins. Here are the facts:

— All three species are overfished.

— In all three species, the population trends are downward.

— The IUCN Red Book lists the most recent status of the three species as follows:

— The Pacific bluefin tuna is listed as “Vulnerable,” which is defined as: “facing a high risk of extinction.”

— The Atlantic bluefin tuna is listed as “Endangered,” which is defined as: “facing a very high risk of extinction.”

— The southern bluefin tuna is listed as “Critically Endangered,” which is defined as: “facing an extremely high risk of extinction.”

So, there you have it: the three species of bluefin tunas face a high risk, a very high risk, and an extremely high risk of extinction. Yet all three continue to be fished at a rate that makes it unrealistic to hope their populations will recover until annual catches are reduced substantially.

The only ray of light falling on the wreckage of our actions is that some of the Pacific rim tuna-fishing countries (including obdurate Japan) have finally accepted a management strategy for Southern bluefin tuna. But before doing so, the Southern bluefin population had already fallen to only 3% of its original numbers, and the claim that it has now risen to 15% of its unexploited size remains to be seen. (Let the air with joy be laden! Southern bluefins are now only 85% depleted!!) However, the other two species (the Atlantic and Pacific bluefins) are still under intense pressure. Not even the smallest whiff of rationality has yet interfered with the mismanagement of those species, and both are still being overfished at rates that guarantee they cannot recover their former productivity for decades, and then only if there are no surprises. Just this year western North Atlantic bluefin tuna have unexpectedly produced a bumper crop. But instead of trying to augment that good news by allowing the species recovery to continue, many tuna fishermen are pushing for larger quotas for next year—thereby risking their chances of seeing a more prosperous future.

It’s like someone who has lost all but 3% of a million-dollar nest egg (i.e., $30,000). But when the value of his stocks unexpectedly tripled in 2017, and his savings went up to $90,000, he wondered what to do? Should he keep investing in his future or buy that groovy, $90,000 Maserati that he’s always wanted? The smart money says that if he buys that nifty car, the future he will face in 5-10 years’ time will be no better than what he faced the day he discovered that he’d lost 97% of his savings. But if he lets his investments grow for 5-10 years there’s a good chance they may build up in value—perhjaps even to the million dollars they were worth before—plus… he can also buy that Maserati.

By pushing for higher tuna quotas after one good year, Bluefin fishermen are all but guaranteeing that they won’t live long enough to experience the prosperity they could achieve from a recovered Bluefin stock. And let me be clear: when I say recovery, I mean the level of maximum sustainable yield, not the pre-exploitation level. And because maximum sustainable yield is only about 50% of the pre-exploitation population it will be reached much sooner if we will only let that happen. However, as I learned from studying whales, every percentage point by which you lower an overexploited population requires exponentially more time for the population to recover.

Japan’s insatiable desire for Bluefin Tuna sushi is creating a whole new taxonomy of shortsightedness. Even Mitsubishi has entered the fray. They were recently accused of stockpiling frozen bluefin tuna because they saw that if the species became economically extinct their stockpile would be worth a fortune. Of course, it would be worth even more—would be a mega jackpot—if overfishing could just go on long enough to drive bluefins to biological extinction. Hell’s bells, that would be a goddam BONANZA!

Here’s another example of how tragically unenlightened the human response has been to this crisis. It concerns the Trump administration’s response to learning that the status of the three Bluefin Tuna species are: “high risk, very high risk and extremely highly risk of extinction:”

Back on October 7, of 2016 (just one month before Trump was elected) the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that in response to a petition from conservationists requesting that Pacific Bluefin Tuna be protected under the Endangered Species Act, that NMFS had decided to conduct an in-depth status review of the species to see if increased protection was warranted.

Of greatest concern was that the Pacific bluefin tuna population had been reduced to only 3% of its pre-fished numbers. There were also other concerns that motivated the group’s request. One was a recent study showing that large fish are particularly susceptible to mass extinctions and that the loss of such species can disrupt ocean food webs in catastrophic ways. Another concern was that most of the fish in the current Pacific bluefin catch are juveniles that haven’t yet spawned. This leaves low numbers of fish in the age classes that can reproduce. The result is that as the older spawning fish die of old age there are fewer sexually mature individuals left to perpetuate the species. Thus, it was very good news that the National Marine Fisheries Service was promising to review the case for giving Pacific bluefins more protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Let us now fast-forward to August, 2017. We find the Trump administration announcing that NMFS has recommended more protection for bluefins and that it has ruled on the aforementioned petition. And how has it ruled? It has rejected the petition, claiming that the protections that were requested are not warranted, even though both NMFS and the petitioners included biologists with years of experience in studying the status of Pacific 
bluefin tuna populations.

So, there you have it; apparently it is only the Trump administration that understands why it is better to maintain maximum fishing pressure on a species that has suffered a 97% reduction. That’s the kind of scientifically savvy understanding that Trump and Co. can offer the world.

Is there nothing, no matter how important, on which we can agree? Can we not set aside our lesser human concerns enough to ensure that we don’t risk destroying one of the most stunning achievements of evolution (or of Creation, if you prefer that interpretation)? Can we not bury our differences long enough to avoid making such an error? Can you or I think of any cause more enduring to which we might devote a bit of our time and treasure than trying to save this stunning and iconic species? Because if you share my belief that beauty really matters, then nothing actually matters more than saving the bluefin tuna.

“Killed by a Whale” by Roger Payne

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Disentangling a right whale (Photo by NOAA Fisheries)

On July 10th, Joe Howlett, 59, father of two and a lobster fisherman from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada was killed by a northern right whale he had just helped to untangle from a snarl of fishing gear. Mackie Green, Howlett’s partner in rescuing whales and a co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said that Howlett had previously participated in some two dozen disentanglements and was both highly experienced and skilled in doing it. He said the details of the situation are being investigated but all that is known so far is that just after the last line entangling the whale had been cut: “Some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip,”

I have discussed this tragedy with several who have claimed that disentangling a whale is “Asking for trouble,” “Nuts,” and “Insane.” “You gotta be crazy to do such a dangerous thing” is a typical remark. And although that sounds reasonable enough, it turns out that these opinions are based on fear and inexperience. After all, you are in a small boat, a zodiac, trying to free an animal that’s bigger than most private yachts and has been under life-threatening stress for hours, days, weeks, or months; and you pull up near it while the propeller on your boat is making a loud, screaming noise. It would not be unreasonable for the whale to conclude that you have come to attack. It only adds fuel to that assumption when you begin tugging on the ropes entangling the whale, because often, some of them pass through open wounds on its body—something that is surely hellishly painful to the whale.

As if further proof were needed about the gravity of the danger you face, the whale is in its element—seawater—in which it is an agile, fully skilled challenger, whereas, you in your zodiac are little more than a helpless, onlooker—having turned off your motor when you arrived to avoid frightening the whale any worse than you already have.

That is the kind of story that fear paints. However, experience tells a very different story. The fact is that despite the clearly scary circumstances in which one finds oneself when disentangling a whale, the evidence of thousands of such disentanglements shows that the whale does not try to strike you. Instead (and for reasons that are counterintuitive), it seems to catch on fast that you are trying to help—some individuals even seem to cooperate by holding still or rolling slowly as you unwind some long net section. The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, one of the pioneers in freeing entangled whales, is reported as saying that Joe Howlett’s death is the first fatality since whale rescues began, back in the early 1980s.

The US is not alone in developing techniques for disentangling whales from fishing gear, the Canadians also pioneered such techniques and both countries’ methods are widely used today. Many were developed by my late friend, Newfoundlander Jon Lien. Over his lifetime, Jon and his team rescued over 1,000 humpback whales from fishing gear without anyone sustaining a serious injury. His presence was not just a godsend to the whales but to the fishermen who owned the nets which, before Jon’s efforts, had often been destroyed or carried away by the whale—with devastating consequences to the fishermen’s lives.

At Ocean Alliance we have studied the behavior of right whales for 47 years and it is clear from that experience that right whales are tail fighters. But they don’t slap with their tails—they strike with them edge-on by making lateral, slashing blows. The thing I would like to know most is what that “big flip,” was that the whale made. Did it slap Joe with the flat of its tail or strike him with a lateral slash? Because if it was a tail slap I would strongly suspect it was not intended to cause harm—that the whale was just accelerating away and the result was a tragic accident that killed Joe—a ghastly mistake, not a tail-slash struck in anger.

There are, of course, dangers involved in disentangling whales, which is why it should only be attempted by professionals with lots of experience—never by the public (doing so is, in fact, illegal and subject to heavy fines). However, the fact that this activity is safer than it looks is so counterintuitive that even though thousands of whale disentanglements have been achieved without incident and for decades, when news broke that Joe Howlett had been killed, the first action the Canadian and US fisheries authorities took was to put a stop to all future disentangling efforts—an announcement that annoyed a lot of people, including me. I vented my anger by drafting this blog. Fortunately, I set what I had written aside (my intention was to make a more stinging rebuke the following day). Mackie Green, Howlett’s co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, expressed best what we were all thinking when he said; “Joe definitely would not want us to stop because of this. This is something he loved and there’s no better feeling than getting a whale untangled, and I know how good he was feeling after cutting that whale clear.”

So… should we stop the activity of disentangling whales? Well, should we stop welcoming dogs into our families? After all, dogs have killed hundreds of people over the years. Horses have killed thousands, but should we therefore try to stop our children from falling in love with horses? I once met a logging elephant in Nepal who had killed six people in her life—the last two, her handlers said, because she had witnessed them stealing rice from her daily food allowance.

And I have sympathy for the head ranger in the Sundarbans National Park and Biosphere Reserve (basically, the delta of the Ganges River) who must defend man-eating tigers from the people who have lost spouses and children to the tigers and want the tigers exterminated.

Any discussion of such examples as these eventually leads to the question of how important our species is and how big a deal the role is that we actually play on this planet. As I have said on other occasions, my view is that we are not the star of the show, but just another pretty face—one species among millions of other beguiling species—and unless we stop trying to upstage Nature, the show can’t go on. As a matter of cold, hard fact, our role is unimportant—a walk-on, a bit part. We aren’t important to the main act—life on earth. It can get along fine without us. It did just that for 2.5 billion years and if we self-destruct will continue to get along just fine—probably better,

However, bacteria, and moulds and plankton and nematode worms are important. Life can’t make it without them. But it can exist without us, and if we ignore our errors and destroy the conditions that support us by allowing global warming, ocean acidification, ocean pollution, overpopulation, and overconsumption to go unchecked, our kind won’t survive.

Many bacteria will survive, however, and in due time they will make the earth relivable for whatever life forms succeed us (unless we have knocked the life support balance too far out of whack with something like a runaway greenhouse effect).

We need to find a role to play that will enable us to fit in sustainably and therefore to survive (and have life survive), because that approach is our only hope if we are to have any more than a fleeting future.

Fortunately, before I embarrassed myself by sending out my first draft of this blog, the fisheries authorities clarified their position by pointing out that they had declared a temporary halt to disentanglements solely to enable an investigation that might shed light on what happened, in case they could find something that could be avoided in future to lower the chance that this tragedy would be repeated. When I read that, I was grateful for having to modify my words, because I saw that our species is moving towards enlightenment and that the need for people to recognize the inalienable rights of the rest of life is starting to be recognized. Sure, the process is moving glacially slowly, but it is moving, and that is cause for celebration, just as surely as the death of Joe Howlett is cause for mourning. For their role in giving us that ray of hope I thank the fisheries authorities of Canada and the United States.

My heart goes out to Howlett’s family for whom this tragedy is a calamity beyond expressing. Because it didn’t happen to me I have the luxury of seeing it in a different light. To me, Joe Howlett is an inspiration, a man years ahead of his time who stepped in to help another species that was suffering. It was an act unsurpassed for decency and morality. He was willing to take risks, which, though they are usually benign, are, when things go wrong, deadly. He certainly knew that. But he acted anyway.

Although I have spent the past 50 years studying whales and working to save them I never met Joe, although we shared the same atypical mission. But I admire him entirely because he was doing something of which our species—any species—could be unreservedly proud. He was showing the way, taking action in response to another species’ distress. Within our species, racism is a heinous offense to all things positive and decent; within the broader world, speciesism is equally reprehensible. Overcoming racism and speciesism are the central problems of our time—the defining achievements that we must accomplish.

We hear daily that we should pitch in to make a difference—should step up. But few do it; our lives are overwhelmingly Business As Usual. Joe Howlett, did do something—he risked his life to save a member of another species that was suffering. In the past, whales and dolphins have done that for humans; he returned the favor. In my opinion that makes him a hero. His children can be proud of him through all eternity. He didn’t get to see them grow old, but the mark he made is something they can cherish forever.

Roger Payne

“Our Ocean” Conference—The Miracle of 2016, by Roger Payne

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I spent last week in Washington, DC where I attended the Our Ocean Conference. I was surprised to see how consequential this meeting turned out to be. Although I have been to dozens of international conferences in my long life, no other meeting ever left me with such hope. To be blunt, I usually regret the time I spend attending conferences, as many seem to me to be a nearly seamless waste of time. But this was different—shockingly different!

The feeling in the room was electrifying as leader after leader from country after country stood in line waiting to announce that they were pledging some incomprehensibly large amount of money, and/or setting aside some incomprehensibly vast square mileage (some pledged their entire Exclusive Economic Zones) as a Marine Protected Area where fishing would be restricted. It was a powerful start at repairing some of the damage our species has done to marine life.

During the conference a total of more than 5.3 biliion dollars (U.S.) was pledged for ending ocean pollution and IUU fishing (Illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing) as well as for maintaining existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and establishing new ones.

IMG_73322015 was the first Our Ocean Conference, and by its end the total area of MPAs covered about 1% of the oceans. But by the end of this year’s Our Ocean conference the MPA pledges had grown to cover 3% of the oceans; and the stated goal for next year’s conference is to bring that total up to 6% of the oceans.

The reason I find this so consequential is that almost anything that makes the news these days has two characteristics: it is usually bad news, and in the rare cases that it is good news it only benefits one species, ours. This time it was extraordinarily good news and it will benefit all life on earth in wonderfully positive ways.

I, like so many other invited guests had decided to follow my wife’s advice and go, although I had all-but-no hope that it would be of any consequence. But by the end of the first day I stood speechless… awestruck by what we had all just witnessed.

And then came the second day, and it outdid the first!

I, of course, realize that in order to have this unprecedented growth of interest in ocean health bear fruit, the protection of MPAs will have to be enforced. I see the main player in this effort as the Sea Shepherd movement with its new focus on helping developing countries police their MPAs by offering local law enforcement officers a chance to get out to where the poachers do their dirty work and arrest them at sea and in the act. I see this as a particularly powerful direction for marine conservation organizations to follow, which is why Ocean Alliance is pleased to be cooperating fully with this pioneering work by the Sea Shepherd movement.

Ocean Alliance’s recent emphasis is on perfecting the use of drones to assess populations of ocean life—seen most famously in the success of Iain Kerr’s SnotBot. Taking such a step follows smoothly in the wake of our global Voyage of the Odyssey in which we made the first global assessment of how badly toxic metals and several synthetic molecules are contaminating sea life… worldwide. That exercise proved our efficacy in assessing the extent of ocean pollution and we plan to scale it up so that other entities can monitor their MPAs—but can do so by sampling the blows of the main indicator species, whales, rather than by taking skin/blubber biopsies.

But identifying problems is just the beginning. We need to find ways to solve those problems in ways that are scalable. As our global “Voyage of the Odyssey” clearly showed, the two major sources of the contaminants that affect ocean life come from: 1) Big Industries that follows the practice of dumping their wastes into the air which then carries the contaminants into the sea, and 2) Big Agriculture—principally synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are washed into rivers and from there down to the sea where they get into all ocean life.

We are now working with Urth Agriculture, an organization that is helping farmers increase their yields while renewing their soils and holding ponds by replacing synthetic fertilizers with microbes that cost a fraction of synthetic fertilizers. Plus, the microbes also rebuild soils rather than continuing to poison them the way synthetic fertilizers do.

The word miracle is much overused, but if you witnessed one, as I did last week, what else can you call it? I had never dreamed of seeing what happened at last week’s conference. Listening to the comments of the participants it became clear that of the many conference organizers who worked so hard to achieve the result, Secretary of State, John Kerry stood out. It was his ability to encourage a kind of friendly rivalry among sovereign nations as to who could promise the biggest percentage of their physical and fiscal resources to improve ocean health (a kind of marine potlatch) that created what I believe should be called The Miracle of 2016.

In the interests of full disclosure, neither Ocean Alliance nor I have asked for, nor stand to receive any financial benefit from the State Department, and although I have shaken his hand, I could easily forgive Secretary Kerry if he didn’t remember me from a sea cucumber. The man deserves our deepest, collective thanks.

What is now most obvious is that this brilliant start needs to be funded generously by governments and foundations as well as by everyone with the vision to see the peril our future holds unless we take the trident that Kerry has passed to us and brandish it as though our lives depended on it. In fact, they do.

Roger Payne

Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice), Sylvia Earle, Roger Payne, Andy Rogan

Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice), Sylvia Earle, Roger Payne, Andy Rogan


M. Sanjayan (Conservation International), Roger Payne, Andy Rogan

M. Sanjayan (Conservation International), Roger Payne, Andy Rogan



Thank You for a Successful Gloucester Harbor Cruise! – by Andy Rogan, OA Science Manager

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On Tuesday the 26th July we hosted our Gloucester Harbour Cruise (which turned into a sunset whale watch!). We are thrilled to announce that it was an enormous success, raising almost $4,000 to support Ocean Alliance and our activities protecting whales & their ocean environment.

With all of the donated food and great weather we knew that we were in store for a great evening, but we were over the moon when our partners (and incredibly gracious hosts), Seven Seas Whale watch, told us that the humpback whales on Stellwagen bank were close enough to shore to access in the time we had available. Our evening on the Privateer IV was thus off to a great start when it turned from a tour of the harbor into a whale watch with our president and founder Dr. Roger Payne!

IMG_0005-Tasia Blough

Photo by Tasia Blough


As we went out to sea, Roger and CEO Iain Kerr talked about our work, our hopes and ambitions for the oceans and our home at the Gloucester Paint Manufactory. The stars of the show were the whales which make Stellwagen Bank their summer home. During one whale dive Roger talked about a similar night he had at sea over 40 years ago when he first heard whale songs.

We reached the whales half an hour before sunset and were treated to a stunningly beautiful display. Lots of fluking into the sunset (to the delight of all with a camera!) and surfacing right next to the vessel thrilled all on-board, including Roger!

Photo by Alex Paradis

Photo by Alex Paradis

IMG_1083-2As we headed back to Gloucester after watching the sun dip beneath the horizon (with a glimpse of a green flash) the silent auction and the raffle got in to full gear, and after a few more tales from Iain and Roger, including his poetic description of ‘The Borneo Cat Drop’, the raffle prize winners were announced.

A great time was had by all and it was fantastic being able to connect with so many Gloucester and Cape Ann locals: a tremendous success all round and we were thrilled to raise $4,000 to support our research & restoration activities! So great a success was it, that we are hoping to make it an annual event!

Enormous thanks are due to a lot of great friends. First and foremost, to Seven Seas Whale Watch, whose vessel the Privateer IV and crew kept everyone safe and happy, and to their captain Jay, whose instinctive understanding of Humpback whales got us so many wonderful encounters. Also to the many local groups that kindly donated food and drink to the cruise including: Cape Ann Brewery, Stop & Shop, the Common Crow, Maritime Gloucester, Passports Restaurant, Latitude 43, Ryan & Wood Distillery, Cape Ann Coffee, the Studio Restaurant and Sugar Magnolias. Thank You so much for your generosity: you made this night the success it was!

And finally to the Ocean Alliance staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly during the whole planning phase and during the evening itself: and in particular to Rebecca Graham, the orchestra conductor, and our board member Linde Mac.



“Aerial and Underwater Drones” by Roger Payne

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It was 46 years ago that I first saw right whales off Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia and started the study of their behavior that Ocean Alliance has continued without a break to this day (making ours the longest continuous study of a whale species based on known individuals). In that first year I watched the right whales from a high cliff and when they came beneath it could see through the water exactly what they were doing and in perfect detail. By filming the patterns of white markings (callosities) on their heads, I could also tell who they were. However, because they were almost always on the move the perfect views from above never lasted more than a few minutes. We could run along the rim of the cliff for a while, looking down at the whale but it was both exhausting and dangerous as any misstep would plunge you headfirst onto the rocks, 150 feet below.

By accurately plotting their positions with surveyors’ theodolytes we later found that at Penìnsula Valdès right whales prefer to be in 5 meters of water—not 4½ meters or 5½ meters but 5 meters of water. They stick to that depth tenaciously in our study area in Golfo San José. In fact, I have never seen a more sharply tuned behavioral preference for water depth in any whale species. It was clear that if you could observe from overhead the whales could not get out of your sight because of their strong preference for water that is only 5 meters deep—a depth through which you can see the whale’s entire body.

For all those reasons, from year one I longed to observe right whales from the air. Sure sure, underwater observations were possible but whenever you approach closely, the whales either leave at once or stop whatever they are doing and come over to examine you closely—often, they try to intimidate or dominate you as well. It is all very impressive but you see nothing of the whale’s normal behavior which is why you are there in the first place. Because it was so clear from the start that aerial observations would enable us to make huge advances in understanding right whale behavior, we tried in that first year to find a helicopter we could afford to charter from which we could observe the whales’. But neither then nor later could we find one at a charter price we could afford. Years later when we were cooperating in the filming of an Imax film, we did finally have the chance to keep a chartered helicopter at whale camp for 10 days. The views we got from it were great but we had to observe from much further away, since helicopters disturb right whales much more than the fixed-wing planes we were used to.

Parasail and baloon

Roger and Iain’s early attempts to observe whales from above in 1987, with a parasail and balloon.

For years I simply yearned to have a model aircraft that could carry a TV camera. I was sure it would be able to get closer without disturbing the whales and that would give us better results. However, none of us had the skills to operate such a machine and it was clear that learning to do so and keeping that skill honed would be a full time occupation—hard to accomplish since there is a long roster of other things that demand one’s full attention during our all-too-short field seasons.

As time passed affordable drones finally began to appear. In 2006 I had the luck of meeting MIT Professor Daniela Rus, two of whose former students had developed a very successful octocopter called the Falcon. We took it and them to Argentina in 2008 and tried it out as a tool for observing right whales. The results were stunning. First off, as long as we kept the downdraft clear of the the whales they simply ignored the drone. Here’s an example of what you can see from a small drone when above a right whale:


At the same time Iain approached Professor Andrew Bennett at Olin College of Engineering and they began building what they dubbed the SnotBot, (one of my least favorite names but a great machine that collects blow samples from right whales, subsequent analyses of which enable you to learn about the health and reproductive state of the whale). Iain is currently off doing this work on the second of three expeditions that Ocean Alliance funded through Kickstarter.

While all of this explosive development was going on Iain was spending evenings and weekends learning how to fly drones in his back yard and the result of that effort made it clear that the dream of studying behavior of whales with drones is now a reality.

Allow me to go out on a limb and predict (in the spirit of Moore’s law) a trend in the amount of information one can get by using drones: I predict that the number of papers on whale behavior based on drones will roughly double every three to five years—thereby tempting one to conclude that if you want to learn about whales, don’t waste your time on, or in, the water, get up in the air.

However, everyone who does accept the challenge of designing drones that can operate in the far-more-difficult world of underwater observations will find that the amount of data they can get on whales will increase even faster. I suspect that in a few more years the explosion of papers based on underwater drones will be increasing at twice the rate of papers based on aerial drones.

I have often felt that by great good fortune I was born at a time ideal for learning more about whales. However, I now feel that an understanding of the world of whales is only in its very earliest, most primitive beginning phase and that its full fruition will come as a result of both aerial and underwater drones—rather than from observations by divers or from shipboard.

Blue body 2


Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

“Art of the Sea and Science,” a collaboration of North Shore Arts Association and Ocean Alliance

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WHAT: “Art of the Sea and Science”
EVENTS: Art exhibition, silent auction, lectures and performance series
WHEN: June 17th through July 30th
WHERE: North Shore Arts Association, 11 Pirates Lane, Gloucester, MA 01930
ADMISSION: Open free to the public with suggested donation of $5 for lectures  and performance series
CONTACT INFO: NSAA at 978.283.1857 or arts@nsarts.org

  • June 17-July 30 “Art of the Sea and Science” exhibition
  • June 17-July 30 Original artwork on Paint Factory Slates silent auction
  • June 26 (12:30-1:30) “Why Whales” lecture with Dr. Iain Kerr
  • June 26 (2-4pm) Reception open free to the general public
  • July 7 (7pm) “Sea Change-Reversing the Tide” performance with Dr. Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow (noted New Zealand actress)
  • July 23 (3pm) “The Intersection of Marine Science, Conservation, Activism and Art” lecture with Karen Ristuben

“From the Harbor” by Sharon Bahosh

American writer, artist and philosopher E. Hubbard said “Art is not a thing, it is a way.” The historic North Shore Arts Association of Gloucester celebrating its 94th year, reflects this philosophy with its “Art in Action – Connecting Communities” focus this season, by hosting a groundbreaking collaboration with Gloucester’s marine conservation/research group Ocean Alliance, now headquartered in Gloucester’s iconic Paint Factory, and historic Rocky Neck Art Colony.

Supporting the Ocean Alliance mission to protect and preserve our oceans and marine life and North Shore Arts Association and Rocky Neck Art Colony’s mission of supporting the arts, an “Art Exhibition of the Sea and Science” will be on display June 17 through July 30 in the galleries of NSAA. Although works of all genres will be on display, the main focus will be works depicting the sea and Cape Ann.

A very unique component of the exhibition will be a show and silent auction of works painted on old roofing slates removed from the historic Paint Factory building. These historic slates donated to NSAA by non-profit Ocean Alliance provide the substrate used by NSAA Artist Members to create original paintings, each approximately 12″x24″ depicting a myriad images. Bids for the silent auction may be placed June 17 through July 30 by visiting or contacting NSAA. One hundred per cent of silent auction proceeds will go to fund the ongoing restoration of the NSAA’s gallery building and Ocean Alliance’s Paint Factory headquarters.

Slate_Demeter, Anne_WhaleandCalf

“Whale and Calf” by Anne Demeter

The collaboration also offers an extraordinary series of Ocean Alliance and Rocky Neck Art Colony lectures and performances. This special programing was made possible through partial funding by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The first of the series will be marine conservation/research group Ocean Alliance presenting a lecture “Why Whales?” by CEO Dr. Iain Kerr on Sunday, June 26th, 12:30-1:30pm followed by a reception, open free to the public 2-4pm. A dynamic performance/poetry reading, “Sea Change: Reversing the Tide” will be presented by President of Ocean Alliance Dr. Roger Payne – whose profound discovery of whale songs has been a major force in their protection – and his wife, noted New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow on Thursday, July 7th at 7pm. Rocky Neck Art Colony President and arts and marine conservation advocate Karen Ristuben will present a lecture “Intersection of Marine Science, Conservation, Activism and Art on Saturday, July 23rd 3pm. All lectures and performances are free with a suggested donation of $5.

To learn more about these three iconic non-profits visit www.nsarts.org, www.whale.org and rockyneckartcolony.org.

About the Lecturers and Performers

– Dr. Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance President and Founder

Dr. Roger Payne states, “I am so disappointed that the Arts and Sciences are taught separately – both the Arts and the Sciences lose. They should be co-mingled.” Ocean scientist Payne embodies the best of the Arts and Sciences functioning together to do something probably neither could have done separately.

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr shares, “Because Dr. Payne is a musician. . . because he is an artist/scientist, his training allowed him to identify, and make the most profound discovery about humpback whales. That whales sing songs!” Prior to his discovery in 1967, along with Scott McVay, whale sounds were a mystery. Payne knew, however, that “a song is a rhythmically repeated collection of notes” and was able, because of his music training, to identify the particular songs of individual whales that he later confirmed can be heard over thousands of miles of ocean.

Having worked aboard the sloop “Clearwater” in support of Pete Seeger’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River in New York, Payne is considered a pioneer in his field. In the hope of sharing the work of artists/scientists, recordings of whale songs were placed aboard American Satellites Voyager I and II. Drs. Payne and Kerr have also stimulated interest in conserving our oceans and marine life by testifying before congress and presenting before the United Nations.

 About SEACHANGE: Reversing the Tide (performed by Dr. Roger Payne and his wife, noted New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow

What is the most consequential contribution of science in the past 100 years? Is it E=mc2, the structure of DNA, decoding the human genome, plate tectonics, the computer revolution, putting a man on the moon, the development of nuclear weapons? None of those directly affects the lives of every human being on earth—most indigenous peoples are simply unaware of all of them. However, respect for the hundreds of species that make the world habitable for us, and with which we interdepend is utterly consequential. Indigenous people were first to guess at it but scientific discovery during the past 50 years has proved it. And the consequence is that discovery is—if we ignore the destruction of the wild world until it can no longer keep the world habitable, our species will not survive.

The evidence for and the consequences of this broad claim are explored in Seachange: Reversing the Tide. In this hour long presentation Roger Payne and his wife, actress Lisa Harrow combine the knowledge of science with the wisdom of poetry to argue compellingly that man is not the overseer of Life on earth but an integral part of Life’s complex web and conclude that the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years is the realization that our species’ survival requires that we attend not just to our own wellbeing but to the wellbeing of the entire web of Life—nothing else we can ever do will be nearly as consequential as understanding that point. The audience emerges with a clear understanding of humanity’s role in the natural world and of the urgency of our need to start living sustainably.

Since 2004, Roger and Lisa have presented SeaChange: Reversing the Tide to audiences in universities, film festivals, schools, churches, conferences, libraries and other public spaces,  off-Broadway, the UN, and in people’s living rooms, throughout the US, as well as in New Zealand and the UK.

Currently, a team of New Zealand/Canadian documentary makers are raising the funds from international sources to make a film of the piece, which they are calling Pale Blue Dot after Carl Sagan’s book, an extract from which are the last words of SeaChange.

“SeaChange moves its viewers. The strength of its ecological convictions derives from well-marshalled facts of the reality of our despoilment of the planet, and the emotional impact of the poetry the piece uses. Most importantly, Harrow and Payne turn away from despair, to what is to be done.” Roald Hoffman, Nobel laureate, chemist and writer

“Thank you, both of you, for that haunting and lovely stage piece. You had me thrumming all the way home.”

– Lawrence Weschler, Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU

Dr. Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

“I think of our planet as Planet Ocean, not Planet Earth because almost three quarters of the planet is ocean.” A self described adventurer who loves ocean science, Kerr was granted a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Southern Maine in honor of his 20 years of ocean research in over 21 countries.

On a trip out of Gloucester harbor in 1993 on a whale watch boat he saw the Paint Factory. Recognizing that such an iconic building, with its long maritime history, might capture the hearts and minds of people thereby stimulating their interest and involvement in ocean and whale conservation, he realized it would be a valuable place to headquarter Ocean Alliance.  As a result, the organization contacted the Annenberg Foundation which ultimately provided all the funds necessary to purchase the Paint Factory.  Kerr emphasizes that, since the building is mortgage free, all donations go to the ongoing restoration of the Paint Factory buildings.

The OA organization is a pioneer in developing benign research tools for studying our oceans, the most recent iteration being drones – which they have dubbed “Snotbots” – which gather specimens from the spray spouted through the blow holes of whales. Award winning actor Patrick Stewart has long been a friend to Ocean Alliance and was instrumental in garnering funds for the “Snotbot” research program. This research method is hailed for its non-invasive approach to studying the health of whale populations.

When asked what is meant by “Alliance” in the OA title, Kerr said it “reflects the idea that, along with collaboration from many other scientific organizations, all of humanity needs to be allied to preserve our oceans.”

Finding Gloucester reminiscent of the small fishing village in South West England where he grew up, Kerr and his wife chose to make their home East Gloucester.


“FV Ocean Reporter” by Jude Abbe

Karen Ristuben, Artist and Marine Conservation Advocate

After a conversation in 2009 with Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, about the challenges of preserving our oceans, Ms. Ristuben became actively involved using her artistic energies to build awareness about marine conservation. Fascinated with the qualities of reflectivity and transparency, she adopted working in glass as her artistic medium.

Then, looking out at the ocean from her Gloucester home she “realized how reflective and transparent” the water is. Also she began noticing the accumulation of plastics on the sand in front of her house. Inspired to take action, Ristuben developed a dynamic performance/lecture using the arts – music, photography and her own videos – creating an art piece as a vehicle to communicate information about the toxic effects of plastics pollution on our oceans. She states, “If there’s something in the world that needs attention – if you present it within an aesthetic framework – it becomes compelling, and they will be engaged and more likely to learn and become an agent for change.  Without an aesthetic element the offering is two dimensional.

Presenting a performance translates the issues through artistic media which then asks a viewer to be a part of it, to experience it, and be touched by it – which then leads to audiences to inquire – what can I do?

Ristuben suggests that people get involved through something that they know and care about that surrounds them. She was surrounded by the sea.  She says, “One can be most effective when talking about something from your own perspective. It allows others to do the same. It gives permission to bring your own life into your art.”

A longtime resident of Rocky Neck and current Rocky Neck Art Colony President, Ristuben sees new excitement and possibilities for forming new working partnerships, especially under the banner of the Cultural Districts, between local arts and scientific communities on Cape Ann.


“Cod” by Phyllis Bezanson

Today is World Oceans Day by Roger Payne

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Back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—UNCED), Canada proposed that June 8th be celebrated around the world, in perpetuity, as World Oceans Day, so that humanity could honor and celebrate the ocean and become more aware of the need to conserve ocean life.

World Oceans Day has been celebrated every year since the Rio Earth Summit, and Starting in 2003 the worldwide events have been coordinated by the World Ocean Network, which late in 2008 persuaded the UN to officially recognize World Oceans Day. Ever since, June 8th has featured ever greater numbers of celebrants, celebrations and events.

Each year World Oceans Day has had a different theme. This year it is: “Healthy oceans healthy planet.” That’s a good theme, given that if the oceans die we won’t survive, because the ocean and the life within it perform so many crucial services that keep the planet livable for us. So even if you live in central Kansas, don’t like seafood, have never seen the ocean, and think that it has no relevance to your life, you should know that it is the ocean that keeps Kansas and the rest of the US livable. As the Secretary General of the UN said on that first World Oceans Day after the UN had recognized it: “Safe, healthy and productive seas and oceans are integral to human well-being, economic security and sustainable development.”

An easier way to make the same point is to say: If the oceans die, we die.

The reason for such a drastic claim is that ocean plants provide half to two thirds of the oxygen we breathe. You may think you could get along fine with half to one third of the oxygen you’re used to; after all, you once climbed that mountain and it was almost 10,000 feet high, and you did OK. You didn’t need oxygen. So how bad could it be to have to get used to breathing air with a third as much oxygen as we’re used to? You and I could get used to it. But oops, it’s the equivalent of being on top of a mountain 100 meters higher than Mt. Everest.

“But,” I hear you say, “People have summited Everest without oxygen.”

Yes, they have, but they didn’t stay on the summit very long.

Given the suite of major problems with which we humans have burdened the ocean:

  • Acidification that kills shellfish and corals,
  • The aquarium trade threatening coral reef species,
  •  The collapse of albatross populations from longline fishing,
  • Noise pollution from ships’ traffic and seismic profiling for petroleum,
  • Oil spills,
  • Offshore drilling in ever-deeper waters,
  • Marine pollution,
  • Gyres of microplastics,
  • Macroplastic trash and tar balls on beaches,
  • Mariculture and its many associated problems,
  • Global and seawater warming that reshapes ecosystems (particularly in polar seas),
  • Unregulated fishing,
  • Unreported fishing,
  • Over-exploitation and extinction of species,
  • Destructive fishing practices like driftnets, trawling, dynamiting for fish on coral reefs,
  • Invasive alien species,
  • Sea-level canals,
  • Etc.

Could we not afford to give our attention to such problems for more than one day a year? Or do we think these problems are not serious enough to warrant more of our attention, and that in one day each year we will become interested enough to solve them before it’s too late?

Or is it just that we like grandstanding, with efforts that cannot possibly solve a problem but that make us feel as though we are making a difference, even when the difference we are making is insignificant?

I think that events like Earth Day and World Oceans Day do make a significant difference but only if we open our calendars or our wallets and contribute enough time or money to make us confident that what we are doing has a chance of making a difference. That is my challenge: that you judge the effectiveness of your efforts today and if you find that you could have done more… do it.

Roger Payne

The Silver Bullet, Part 2: Less is More — Much More, by Roger Payne

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In my previous blog I pointed out that if you accept the premise that overpopulation is the root cause of all of humanity’s biggest problems, then if we all work on having fewer children, we will also be helping to reduce all of the world’s major problems.

I also noted that we need to get rid of the near-prohibition on even talking about overpopulation, because only when we get rid of it can we start applying what I’ll call the Two Step Program—a method that has been successful in the broadest possible variety of human cultures and that works its magic without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything. I.e. it is not like the policy China recently revoked which penalized couples for having more than one child—there’s nothing mandatory about the Two Step Program. It’s entirely voluntary. Here it is, in all of its complexity:

Step 1) Offer women a free education.
Step 2) Offer everyone free contraceptive materials plus free instruction in their use.

Wherever and whenever both of these approaches have been tried, the rate of increase of the population has started to fall.

That means that the effectiveness of the Two Step Program has already been demonstrated. We know it works and we know how to use it. But most importantly: it lowers population growth rates voluntarily. Reversal is achieved without anyone telling anyone else that they have to use contraceptives; free contraceptive materials are simply made available free, and each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether to use them. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

For many people, the big deterrent to having no children or only one is that it seems to be so purely negative. But a small family offers ENORMOUS advantages.

It is those benefits that are the subject of this blog.

Let me offer a list of some of the positive things that having one child or no children bring:

  • You avoid the astronomical costs to yourself and the environment of raising more  children… and grandchildren.
  • You can give one child your full attention.
  • You can give one child the best education.
  • You can give one child the most healthy diet.
  • You can give one child the healthiest and best lifestyle.
  • If you have one child and he/she follows the same principles that your child did you will have only one grandchild.
  • If you have only one grandchild you can give it your full attention and offer greater help in giving it the best education, most healthy diet, and best lifestyle.
  • You will have more time yourself for other things (and have more fun doing them).
  • Every street, every store, every public space, every space of any kind you occupy will be less crowded.
  • You will experience fewer traffic jams.
  • You will waste less of your life waiting in lines.
  • Your commuting time will be shorter.
  • The price of housing will be lower… everywhere.
  • Your world will be more tranquil.
  • You will see more stars, even when you are close to cities.
  • Your life will feature more encounters with more abundant, and more unusual wildlife. And if you live in the country the dawn and dusk choruses of birds will be richer and more enchanting.

But of most direct advantage to you and your child will be that if you and your friends have worked hard enough to persuade several others to follow your example, then every other problem the world faces will be starting to get smaller. E.g.:

  • Global warming will start to slow down and will eventually stop.
  • The oceans will start becoming less, rather then more acidic, and coral reefs and seashells will start to reappear (although, alas, extremely slowly).
  • Species extinction rates will slow down and will eventually return to their almost unimaginably slow normal—a rate between a thousandth and a ten thousandth of the current, Anthropocene extinction rate).
  • The air you breathe will become cleaner and less polluted.
  • The water you drink and in which you wash your food, your dishes, your clothes, your child and yourself will become less polluted.
  • The ocean in which you swim, and in which the fish you eat grow up, will become less and less polluted (as will, of course, the fish).
  • And you will have better luck fishing, because there will be more and bigger fish.
  • When you snorkel you will have better underwater visibility.
  • Hunger and homelessness will come to an end.
  • The rate of topsoil loss will slow to far less significance.
  • Aquifers will refill.
  • There will be fewer causes (and excuses) for wars.

But the best of all, “Oh my best beloved,” you will not have to apologize to your child or grandchild for having done nothing to help solve the world’s biggest problem. You can, in fact, boast about having participated in its solution. And you will not have to tell your grandchild what a tiger was.

Or an elephant.
Or a rhinoceros.
Or a panda.
Or a pink dolphin,
Or a cheetah.

Well, you get my point.
We have come to the really hard part: doing something to achieve these benefits. You and I must both stop postponing action—must stand up and do something about overpopulation. One thing we can do is to spread the word about how utterly important the advantages of having a small family are.

But that will only happen if take the time and the initiative to talk to, and write to, our friends and relatives, about this uncomfortable subject, all the while emphasizing the urgency of slowing overpopulation and the importance of keeping families small (for there is, unfortunately, only one way to lower population size humanely and that is to reduce family size).

Step one is getting the world to pay attention to how important small families are. And I believe that that will only transpire when people understand how enormous the advantages are of having fewer children.

So now comes the thing that is hardest for me, personally, to do: in the interests of full disclosure I must admit that although I love them individually, collectively, and in all of their combinations, I have four children. I realize that in the eyes of most people, that gives me no right to offer any advice whatsoever about family size.  However, my excuse is that all of my children were conceived before
The Pill became broadly known and broadly available (I realize that, like all excuses, that’s pretty weak).

Each child was a triumph of biology over whatever form of birth control my wife and I were practicing at the time, and always because some previous technique had failed. But it is because of that history that I think what I have to say does have value and may be something that should not just be discarded out of hand. For I have noticed that if someone who has failed at something is willing to be honest about why they failed, their advice is likely to be more valuable than the advice of someone who succeeded at it. For example: I would rather hear about driver safety from someone who has survived an accident than from someone who’s never experienced one. (The corollary to that is that because I am in the latter category I realize that I know less about what strategy is likely to fail than those who have suffered the consequences of such failures.)

During the time that has passed since the years in which I was busy failing at non-reproduction, contraception has experienced several game-changing advances. The one that finally saved my wife and me was my getting a vasectomy (I couldn’t find a people-doctor willing to risk doing it as it was an illegal procedure at the time so I got a veterinarian to do it). It was as clear then, as it is now, that in any partnership it’s the man who should have such an operation; for we men only require a local anesthetic, whereas the equivalent operation for a woman requires a general anesthetic, and that can be life-threatening.

My reason for offering this vivid example of too much information about one’s private life is to say that having personally experienced it I know that after a vasectomy sex is not less pleasurable, it is more pleasurable. You can’t detect any differences in sensations yet you now know there is no longer any danger that you’ll give your partner an unwanted pregnancy—something she appreciates as much as you do, and demonstrates by her reaction.

In summary:

Smaller families offer monumentally positive advantages, both for individuals and society. If enough people can be persuaded to experience those advantages, the problem of overpopulation can be solved—by advocating for the Two Step Program:

1) Offering women a free education.

2) Offering everyone free contraceptive materials plus free instruction in their use.

Given how many other problems will be lessened by ending overpopulation, I suggest that there is no greater mischief any dogma can create (religious, moralistic, or otherwise) than placing obstacles in the path of techniques whose goals are to reduce the human population without pressure.

The Two-Step Program achieves such a reduction and it is time for all of us to participate in promoting the goal of solving the population problem equitably by employing such techniques.

— Roger Payne

The Silver Bullet: A New Year’s Resolution to Tackle Overpopulation, by Roger Payne

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It’s that time of year when we decide on what New Year’s resolution to make. I suspect that the best ones are those that make the biggest differences, and to make a big difference you need to address a big problem. So… to make a good resolution: 1) identify the biggest problems; 2) choose one, and; 3) resolve to do what you can to reduce that problem.

When I say the biggest problems I’m talking about REALLY BIG world problems: global warming, ocean acidification, extinction of species, overpopulation, air pollution, water pollution, ocean pollution, overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, hunger, homelessness, social injustice, overconsumption, loss of top soils, depletion of aquifers, and numberless wars.

The trouble with the biggest problems is that they are all so big and what causes them is so different in each case, that solving them involves dauntingly complex approaches. This results in a generally accepted belief that there is no such thing as a silver bullet for any of the world’s biggest problems.

I challenge that belief; let me be provocative: I agree that each of our biggest problems has a root cause but I believe that a root cause for every biggest problem is the same root cause—overpopulation. That means that if we could somehow reverse overpopulation we would be helping cure not just overpopulation, but all of our biggest problems.

Let me put all this another way; if you agree with me that overpopulation is a root cause for all of our biggest problems then the only valid conclusion to be drawn is: if we can solve overpopulation we will be helping solve all of our biggest problems. That makes solving the overpopulation problem a silver bullet.

But to start solving it we must first get rid of what seems almost like an embargo on even discussing overpopulation.

That is something that every one of us can help remove by giving every organization we are part of the strong message that overpopulation is the world’s number one problem, and that until we can reverse it there is no hope, but once we start reversing it there will be huge amounts of hope, because we will be reducing the severity of every one of the world’s biggest problems.

That step will show that there is a silver bullet that can help solve all of our biggest problems, and that silver bullet is simply having smaller families.

The most important thing about this is that we already know how to make the population get smaller without forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.

The method has reduced the population of the most dissimilar imaginable human cultures. Furthermore it has worked its magic without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything. It is not like the recently revoked China policy which penalized couples for having more than one child. There’s nothing mandatory about the technique I’m promoting. It’s entirely voluntary.

Shooting this Silver Bullet involves two steps:

  1. Educating women
  2. Offering everyone free contraceptive materials, along with training in how to use them effectively.

Wherever and whenever both of these approaches have been tried the population has gotten smaller (as long as proper instruction in using the free contraceptives was given).

So the effectiveness of this silver bullet has already been demonstrated. We know it works and we know how to use it. And best of all, it works to reverse overpopulation voluntarily—not punitively. Reversal is achieved without anyone telling anyone else that they have to use contraceptives. Contraceptive materials are simply made available free, and each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether they want to use them. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

The thing that makes this approach work is that it turns out that the natural inclination of women everywhere when they get an education is to do something with their lives in addition to bearing and raising children. So if they have access to free contraceptives it turns out that a significant number of women will use them to postpone or avoid pregnancies, with the result that the population gets smaller.

Some organized religions have major objections to solving the overpopulation problem. But even in countries where the dominant religion strongly opposes birth control, educating women and making contraceptives available free results in lower birthrates. For example, the populations of the two countries with the lowest birthrates in the EU are 90 and 99 percent Catholic. And Italy, the country that hosts the Pope, is an EU leader in reducing its population. (And I have seen the claim that Italy also has more women PhDs than any other European country.)

If I am right (or even if I’m only partly right) it means there is a silver bullet that can help cure all of our biggest problems. I say that’s reason enough for each of us to make our New Year’s resolution be: to devote our free time and energy to telling everyone we know everywhere about this silver bullet and asking them to help spread the word about the benefits of small families. If you, and I, and they do this we will all be helping shrink the world’s biggest problems.

And we will all be striking at the roots of these problems while everyone else is slashing at the branches.

In my next blog I will discuss some of the benefits of small families.

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Ocean Acidification, by Roger Payne

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By now, most people probably know that the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated by burning fossil fuels causes global warming. But fewer people know that the CO2 the seas absorb combines with seawater to make carbonic acid, which raises the acidity of the oceans. Since humanity started burning coal in earnest 150-200 years ago the seas have become 30 percent more acidic and it is now known that in some areas such species as oysters, and corals are already being prevented from retaining (or forming) their shells, simply because these animals can’t make their shells or their stone-like houses if the water is too acidic.

Ocean acidity also devastates a series of tiny animals with unfamiliar names like pteropods—a kind of snail with wings that are used to fly underwater. Pteropods form shoals containing millions of individuals and are a principal food for baleen whales.

Ocean acidity already affects such tiny planktonic organisms as coccolithophores, corraline algae and foraminiferans, all of which live at the bases of ocean food chains. If the seas get acidic enough to cause these plankton populations to crash, it will demolish the complex food pyramids that support all economically important ocean food pyramids. That’s because all such food pyramids are entirely dependent on plankton. If the plankton die, the whole pyramid dies. No phyto-plankton, no zooplankton. No zooplankton, no fish. No fish, no whales (or seals, or sea birds, or the roughly1billion people-who-depend-on-fish as their primary source of animal protein). We must also not forget that it is plankton that provide the oxygen for two out of every three breaths we take (a topic I will have more to say about later).

Scientists now predict that people must either plant billions of trees to convert the excess CO2 into wood or stop producing so much carbon dioxide. If we don’t do either, ocean acidity will more than double in the next 40 years.

But how bad could that be?

Well, in the last 20 million years ocean acidity has never changed at a rate any faster than 1/100th of that rate. Life has no mechanisms to cope with such rates of change.
One of the benefits of the 21st session of The Conference of The Parties (COP) currently taking place in Paris is that several independent organizations seem to be starting to consolidate their efforts—a step that seems bound to give them greater impact. Of particular promise is the recently announced Tapestry of Hope, representing 1700 local service projects that combine Jane Goodall’s powerful Roots and Shoots programs (now operating in more than 130 countries) with Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue (which specifies 46 Hope Spots—each being an area critical to ocean health).

When Drs. Goodall and Earle announced this important initiative Sylvia Earle noticed that the agreement the COP was discussing failed even to mention ocean acidification—a rather strange omission, I thought, given that ocean acidification may just be a more immediate and all-encompassing threat to life on earth than global warming is, simply because it may reach lethal levels sooner (it is already high enough so that such key species as corraline algae, staghorn coral, pteropods and oysters are unable in some areas to get carbonate ions to precipitate out of solution and that means they cannot form their shells or coral skeletons that they need to protect and enable their lives.

It is clear enough that life on land will take a terrible hit from global warming, but thousands of species will nevertheless probably survive by moving to higher ground or expanding their ranges into the polar seas where the water can be counted on to remain cool, even when the oceans warm overall, simply because polar waters will continue to lose heat during the dark months of winter.

The acidity of the seas, on the other hand, will inexorably increase over time, worldwide. This means that neither the polar oceans nor any other part of the seas will represent a Coventry where the levels of acidification can be counted on to remain low enough for life to persist.

All in all, the massive increase in CO2 from burning fossil fuels produces two quite separate effects on ocean life. But the time it takes for the oceans to become dangerously acidic seems to be shorter than the time it takes them to become dangerously warm. In general, seriously consequential acidity appears to take decades while seriously consequential warming appears to take much longer before it exerts a comparably destructive effect on ocean life.

In each case these rates depend on the intensities at which different species are affected—a subject about which there is very little information. However the fact remains that the time it takes for heating to affect species negatively may be significantly longer than the time it takes to see similar damage from acidification.

But the key point here is that although both are triggered by increasing CO2, warming and acidification are very different processes and it would be naive to assume that the rates at which their effects will cause problems for ocean life should be the same. They can be expected to affect different species and different ecosystems after different delays and therefore should be considered separately.

In summary: I believe that the most imminent threat we face may very well not be global warming but the acidification of the oceans, simply because acidification seems to be causing serious mischief to ocean life sooner.

If that it turns out to be true I would not be surprised if the most serious problem our species now faces is ocean acidification, not global warming.

© Roger Payne
Dec 9, 2015

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.