Blue, green, grey, white, or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent.
One might be tempted to add the color red to Lovecraft’s list of descriptions. Between commercial whaling, commercial fishing, dolphin slaughters, and Seal “hunts,” the waters of the planet are increasingly filled with blood. The unsilence of Lovecraft’s ocean is joined by the voices of activists calling for an end to practices and industries which empty the oceans of life and place the biological infrastructure of the planet in peril. At the same time the voices of biologists and cognitive ethologists continue to confirm the fact that whales and dolphins are intelligent beings with their own recognizable languages, dialects, and cultures. The ocean was never silent. People are beginning to remember how to listen.
Over the past century commercial fishing has taken on the industrial model of production. Ocean trawls scoop up every living thing they can; the dead are then sorted and the unwanted species are tossed back. Overfishing, which means fishing at levels that do not allow a given population to replenish itself, is the norm. Quotas that seek to regulate fishing are often drafted with the interests of industries in mind. Coastal fisheries often resemble factory farms. In 2003 it was reported that 90% of all large ocean fish—“tuna, swordfish, marlin, and the large ground-fish such as cod, halibut, skates and flounder”—are gone (National Geographic). A mere ten percent remain, which means that quotas on “overfishing” refer to the percentage taken of that remainder.
The case of bluefin tuna illustrates the failure of quotas when regulatory agencies have the interests of the fishing industries in mind. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) set a quota for almost 13,000 tons. “This quota,” writes Sea Shepherd, “was set in compliance with ICCAT’s bluefin tuna ‘recovery plan,’ which is anticipated by its creators to allow the bluefin a 60% chance of recovery by 2020” (Sea Shepherd). The organization in charge of the survival of the species allows for a 40% chance of no recovery. The body of one bluefin can sell for up to $75,000 dollars and those who place profit over life will use both legal and illegal means of acquisition.
Up through the 19th century whales were hunted for their blubber. As a source of oil, it was burned in lamps to provide light prior to the invention of the light bulb and the mass electrification of cities in the early 20th century. Whale hunting was a part of the industrial economy. Whales are still hunted for their meat in countries like Norway, Denmark, South Africa, Iceland, Spain, and Japan. The most prominent example of whaling today has been highlighted by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in their Antarctic campaigns against Japanese whaling fleets. In order to flout international law Japanese whalers claim they are doing scientific research in whale sanctuaries but butcher these sentient beings to be sent to market.
While people may be rightfully concerned that nationalist politics and histories of racism could play a role in these issues, Sea Shepherd has consistently refuted such claims as unfounded and ill-informed. What is routinely lost in the concerns over human drama is the situation of the whales themselves. Even if there weren’t increasing evidence from the scientific community suggesting that whales, as ancient intelligent mammals, have their own cultures, they should still be deserving of our respect and need to be protected from short-sided and cruel industries.
Dolphins are among the most intelligent and most social beings on earth yet they are being killed by the thousands. In places like the Faeroe Islands and Japan dolphins are driven into confined areas and slaughtered for their meat. These practices, which literally turn the water red with blood, have received media attention in documentaries like The Cove (2009) and generated celebrity concern. Unfortunately, this has not been enough to stop the slaughters. Media attention and public sympathy are not enough; these practices need to be outlawed.
The conscious slaughtering occurs against a backdrop of death by side-effect. Dolphins are routinely caught in commercial fishing nets; they face polluted waters, depleted food, human traffic, and capture for entertainment. Their lives and habitats are routinely sacrificed. It is completely unnecessary and cruel.
The cultural fear and prejudice against sharks in some countries leads to their valorization in others. Shark fin soup is considered a delicacy and is an expensive dish throughout Asia but also, increasingly, in the United States. It is estimated that over 100 million sharks are killed each year for this multi-billion dollar industry. Sharks—irrespective of their age, sex, or species—are caught and pulled on board boats. Their fins are cut off while they are still alive and they are thrown back into the water limbless and drowning. This practice is considered one of the most inhumane and wasteful human practices against ocean life on the planet. Click here to see a video. Simply put, in the 21st century sharks have more to fear from us than we have from them.
Despite phenomenon like “Shark Week” few people are aware of legal battles to halt the killing of sharks off the coast of North America. Washington State and Oregon have both recently passed legislation outlawing this practice as well as the sales and distribution of shark fins within their respective territories. California is on its way. It is important to understand the industrial—which is to say cruel, wasteful, and destructive—treatment of shark populations is part of the larger network of threats currently facing life in the oceans.
Hundreds of thousands of baby seals are beaten to death each year for their pelts and for commercial profit. Young seals, prior to molting and who are still in the care of their mothers, are corralled into groups, clubbed, hooked, and skinned—often while still holding on to life. This happens in several northern countries, particularly Canada and Norway, but also exists in southern countries like Namibia. Governments and regulatory agencies raise the death quota each year and each year the threat to the survival of harp seals grows. The profound cruelty implicit in the mass-killing of newborn seals needs no explanation; those that profit from this violence should be the ones to justify their actions.
Concerns over the rights of indigenous and tribal people to hunt in accordance with their traditions and economies are completely valid, however, only a small fraction of the government-regulated kill quota is reserved to tribal hunting. The vast majority of the quota is devoted to commercial killing. There is really no excuse for this industry outside of lucrative “high fashion” which caters to an economic and cultural elite and a small market for seal meat in Asia.
All of these issues focus on the conscious killing of sea life for the sake of often narrow economic interests. We often neglect the unconscious effects of our daily life on the oceans. This includes things like run-off from nitrogen fertilizers which creates large “dead zones” deprived of oxygen and all the inevitable accidents, spills, and leakages from oil drilling. The threat of global warming and climate change on the oceans is perhaps one of the most frightening. As the oceans absorb CO2 their acidity levels rise. This means declines in the populations of plankton and other small forms of life which make up the micro-infrastructure of the aquatic biosphere. As these organisms are the ecological basis of all larger forms of life their survival is directly impacted by industrial and agricultural practices on land.