MUCH SHOULD WE INVEST TO SAVE A WHALE?
by Whit Gibbons
May 27, 2007
mother humpback whale and her baby took a 90-mile wrong turn recently
up the Sacramento River in California. Great effort as well as federal
and state taxpayer money has been spent trying to get the whales back
to sea. Is worrying about the fate of two whales that can't seem to navigate
properly worth it? Should we just let nature take its course?
against saving individual whales is based on genetics. A parasite infecting
the inner ear of susceptible whales may cause severe disorientation, resulting
in their swimming into a perilous area. Or perhaps supersonic whines of
ship engines result in confusion that leads to some whales traveling toward
shore or upstream instead of into deeper ocean waters. Either way, some
would argue, a whale that ends up in dangerously shallow water is not
a good whale to put back into the marine mammal gene pool. By protecting
whatever genes are being harbored by a whale that can’t tell a beach
or river from an ocean, are we perpetuating this behavior in future generations?
think that saving an errant whale is ill-advised because rescuing a single
whale today is far less important than having a thousand whales several
generations from now. How much do we invest in rescue efforts to return
one of these stranded leviathans to the water? If the private and public
funds spent annually to push ponderous marine mammals back into the sea
were directed toward cleaning up coastal areas, buying small wetlands,
or developing environmental education materials, we would get a lot more
protected wildlife for the money.
if we are truly interested in biodiversity and the overall welfare of
wildlife species, we should put our resources into saving populations,
not individuals. For people concerned with the bigger picture of environmental
health and conservation, the cost of saving one whale is a waste of resources.
It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis. When we consider the number
of animals, including whales, that would have a better life if time, energy,
and money were spent on habitat conservation, saving a single whale just
isn’t worth it.
people will always take an animal rights position, asserting that all
possible means should be employed to save a stranded whale. Among the
biologically arguable reasons for this approach is that disorientation
might be caused by human activities that could be modified. For example,
if human made noises in the ocean environment are even partially responsible
for leading whales astray, regulations could be implemented to control
the problem. And until such measures are put into effect, some would say,
we are morally obligated to try to remedy the results caused by our actions.
the benefits of saving one individual of one species can never justify
the cost of losing other species and other components of the environment
because of lost resources. But most arguments, whether fact based or emotional,
will do little to change people's opinions. Some humans will always be
of a mind to save stranded whales and will feel we have an obligation
to do so. And the news media will always be there to make a fuss over
a stranded whale, particularly if it has a baby in tow. Whales aren’t
big-eyed, cuddly, and cute. But they are magnificent beasts that are demonstrably
intelligent; they exert a palpable hold on our imaginations; and they
generate stirring stories that the media find hard to resist. In truth,
the sight and sound of a whale in distress is something few people could
endure without making an effort to help.
would agree that one positive feature of whale saving efforts is that
such activities increase the level of environmental awareness among people,
some of whom might normally have little or no concern for the environment.
If whales are symbolic of other wildlife species that are also in trouble,
saving a few more whales probably won't hurt. And if saving whales makes
us more receptive to the idea of saving habitats, it will do a world of
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