Posted by Dr. Denise L Herzing and Dr. Lori Marino, Human-Nonhuman Relationship Board
Over the millennia humans and the rest of nature have coexisted in various relationships. However the intimate and interdependent nature of our relationship with other beings on the planet has been recently brought to light by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This ongoing environmental disaster is a prime example of “profit over principle” regarding non-human life. This spill threatens not only the reproductive viability of all flora and fauna in the affected ecosystems but also complex and sensitive non-human cultures like those we now recognize in dolphins and whales.
Although science has, for decades, documented the links and interdependence of ecosystems and species, the ethical dilemma now facing humans is at a critical level. For too long have we not recognized the true cost of our life styles and priorities of profit over the health of the planet and the nonhuman beings we share it with. If ever the time, this is a wake up call for humanity and a call to action. If humanity is to survive we need to make an urgent and long-term commitment to the health of the planet. The oceans, our food sources and the very oxygen we breathe may be dependent on our choices in the next 10 years.
And humanity’s survival is inextricably linked to that of the other beings we share this planet with. We need a new ethic.
Many oceanographers and marine biologist have, for a decade, sent out the message that the oceans are in trouble. Human impacts of over-fishing, pollution, and habitat destruction are threatening the very cycles of our existence. In the recent catastrophe in the Gulf, one corporation’s neglectful oversight and push for profit has set the stage for a century of clean up and impact, the implications of which we can only begin to imagine.
Current and reported estimates of stranded dolphins are at fifty-five. However, these are dolphins visibly stranded on beaches. Recent aerial footage, on YouTube, by John Wathen shows a much greater and serious threat. Offshore, in the “no fly zone” hundreds of dolphins and whales have been observed in the oil slick. Some floating belly up and dead, others struggling to breathe in the toxic fumes. Others exhibit “drunken dolphin syndrome” characterized by floating in an almost stupefied state on the surface of the water. These highly visible effects are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the spill’s impact on the long term health and viability of the Gulf’s dolphin and whale populations, not to mention the suffering incurred by each individual dolphin as he or she tries to cope with this crisis.
Known direct and indirect effects of oil spills on dolphins and whales depend on the species but include, toxicity that can cause organ dysfunction and neurological impairment, damaged airways and lungs, gastrointestinal ulceration and hemorrhaging, eye and skin lesions, decreased body mass due to limited prey, and, the pervasive long term behavioral, immunological, and metabolic impacts of stress. Recent reports substantiate that many dolphins and whales in the Gulf are undergoing tremendous stress, shock and suffering from many of the above effects. The impact to newborns and young calves is clearly devastating.
After the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in 1989 two pods of orcas (killer whales) were tracked. It was found that one third of the whales in one pod and 40 percent of the whales in the other pod had disappeared, with one pod never recovering its numbers. There is still some debate about the number of missing whales directly impacted by the oil though it is fair to say that losses of this magnitude are uncommon and do serious damage to orca societies.
Yes, orca societies. Years of field research has led to the conclusion by a growing number of scientists that many dolphin and whale species, including sperm whales, humpback whales, orcas, and bottlenose dolphins possess sophisticated cultures, that is, learned behavioral traditions passed on from one generation to the next. These cultures are not only unique to each group but are critically important for survival. Therefore, not only do environmental catastrophes such as the Gulf oil spill result in individual suffering and loss of life but they contribute to the permanent destruction of entire oceanic cultures. These complex learned traditions cannot be replicated after they are gone and this makes them invaluable.
On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which acknowledges basic rights to life, liberty, and freedom of cultural expression. We recognize these foundational rights for humans as we are sentient, complex beings. It is abundantly clear that our actions have violated these same rights for other sentient, complex and cultural beings in the oceans – the dolphins and whales. We should use this tragedy as an opportunity to formally recognize societal and legal rights for them so that their lives and their unique cultures are better protected in the future.
Recently, there was a meeting of scientists, philosophers, legal experts and dolphin and whale advocates in Helsinki, Finland, who drafted a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans a global call for basic rights for dolphins and whales. You can read more about this effort and become a signatory here: http://cetaceanconservation.com.au/cetaceanrights/. Given the destruction of dolphin and whale lives and cultures caused by the ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf, we think this is one of the ways we can commit ourselves to working towards a future that will be a lifeboat for humans, dolphins and whales, and the rest of nature.