The Story of the North Atlantic Right Whale: Past, Present, and Future
2013, High School, Prose
All living things are dependent on the resources provided by the natural world for their survival, and mankind is no different in that sense. Unfortunately, it different in that it has is learned to take more than the natural world is safely able to provide and has become accustomed to doing so. Up until about twelve thousand years ago, humans maintained the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that allowed other living things to survive alongside them. The destructive human excess that flies in the face of the rights other beings have to live was still unknown to the world. Then came the Neolithic Revolution – the general transition of man from a lifestyle in tune with the world’s natural balance to one based on agriculture. The advent of agriculture set the stage for human civilization as we now know it and was a major turn of events in the history of the world. For the first time, a single species, no more deserving than any other species living on the planet, decided that it’s needs and desires were more important than those of all the others sharing the Earth. For the first time, a single species reasoned that it’s unimpeded growth and development at the expense of other things was acceptable and even desirable. From that point on, the stories of many other species on this Earth have been sad ones. Over the last few centuries in particular, the loss of global biodiversity has reached tragic proportions. Pursued to their extinction as resources for human development or chased to the edge of their habitats by sprawling human developments, thousands of species have been sacrificed for the sake of the powerful manifest destiny paradigm that guides our western civilization.
The plight of the North Atlantic right whale seems to be another example of the perpetuation of this unfortunate trend. They received their ironic name between four and five hundred years ago because they were designated by whalers as the “right” whale to hunt. They lived close to coastal areas easily accessible by boats and had layers of thick, oil-rich blubber. They also had six-foot, baleen feeding plates that could be of commercial value and floated once dead as if to facilitate easy collection by whalers. Before hunting began, the North Atlantic right whale population could have numbered as many as eighty thousand animals. But that soon changed after whalers realized the opportunity they had at hand. Upwards of forty thousand whales were killed in one century after hunting began in the 1500s. With decimated stocks, the right whales of the Northern Atlantic were in danger of extinction by 1750. At one point in time, their stocks could have been as low as one or two-dozen whales.
Today, despite being protected by international whaling laws, the right whale still finds itself threatened by human activity. In the Northern Atlantic they number around a meager three hundred individuals, and their population is having trouble rebounding from widespread whaling. Their population growth would be slow even without having suffered through a period of dramatic human overexploitation. As a K – selected species with long periods of gestation and parental care, they reproduce at an incredibly slow rate of one calf every three to four years. However, heightened levels of mortality play a role in their continued status as a critically endangered species. Marine biologists who have studied the North Atlantic right whale widely agree with the 2001 paper written by Knowlton and Kraus when it states that “mortality and serious injury due to human activities, particularly commercial fishing and shipping, are thought to be significant factors limiting their recovery.”