The Elevation Of Human Safety Above All Else

Working to free a whale from fishing gear

Last July, Canadian whale disentanglement expert Joe Howlett got very unlucky. A North Atlantic right whale he was working to free from fishing gear smashed into him with its powerful tail flukes and killed him. It was a tragedy in which one compassionate human lost his life doing something he believed was important and meaningful.

Naturally, fisheries agencies in both Canada and the US suspended whale disentanglement operations in order to investigate, learn lessons and see whether the safety of disentanglement crews could be enhanced. That is absolutely worth doing.

The problem is that all whale disentanglement operations in Canada are now burdened with cumbersome procedures that slow and sometimes prevent disentanglement of many whales tangled in fishing gear, and continues to ban outright the disentanglement of right whales (which are viewed to be more active, and therefore more dangerous, during disentanglement efforts than other whale species). The US authorities have allowed whale disentanglement operations to resume as usual on most species, but are also keeping a ban on right whale operations. Unfortunately, North Atlantic right whales also happen to be the most threatened whale species that frequently find its way into fishing gear, and every death undermines the future of the population, which numbers just over 500 individuals.

Macleans magazine takes a look at this unfortunate sequence of events, and the implications for right whale populations and whale disentanglement rescue efforts. I am highlighting it because it is a perfect example of how an emphasis on human safety (for all sorts of reasons) often trumps all other considerations.

The right whales are endangered due to human activity (shipping strikes and fishing gear entanglement). Some courageous people devote themselves to mitigating the human impacts on the right whale population, in full knowledge of the risks involved. The death of one of those individuals should not result in endangering the entire North Atlantic right whale population in the name of human safety. We owe them. Disentangling whales from all the ropes and nets we drop into the ocean is the right thing to do.

Lots of jobs (firefighting, for example) are risky, but people do them (and accept the risk) because they believe in the good that results. No one questions that equation, or calls for the end of firefighting when a fireman dies. In this case the good is the welfare and future of an animal population, something that is not directly related to human interests (or at least not generally seen to be related to human interests; which I would disagree with). And that apparently is not worth any human lives, even if the humans involved willingly and knowingly accept the risks. That is a perverse, and tragic outcome. An outcome that Howlett’s son tells Maclean’s Howlett would be upset by. Another disentanglement expert put it to Maclean’s more bluntly. The new restrictions put in place by Canadian authorities, and the ban on right whale rescues, he told the magazine, are “a real insult to all the work done down here.” They are also the result of a twisted worldview in which humanity continue to minimize the interests of non-human species.