HOW MUCH SHOULD WE INVEST TO SAVE A WHALE?

by Whit Gibbons


May 27, 2007


A 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?

One argument 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?

Some conservationists 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.

Logically, 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.

But some 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.

Nonetheless, 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.

Many conservationists 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 good.



If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)

 

 
SREL HomeUGA Home