They have quietly saved hundreds of whales for over 20 years
I rarely focus on a single person or group in this column, unless I’m particularly peeved. But this week I’m going to make an exception. Whales have been in the news for the past six months, whether it’s unfortunate strandings of porpoises, beached dead whales or whales entangled in fishing gear. It seems that this year, the inshore waters off Newfoundland were teeming with whales – to the delight of tourists and boat tour operators. Their presence really is a gift – as a society, we do nothing to attract them here. In fact, by fishing for their primary food source capelin, it can be argued that we will one day drive them offshore after we inevitably deplete the inshore stocks.
That being said, it’s not quite true that none of us do anything to help the whales. Wayne Ledwell and Julie Huntington of the Whale Release and Strandings group do a lot – more than anyone else in eastern North America, in fact. Before I explain how they do that, we should understand how important the waters off our beautiful island are for these magnificent creatures.
It’s no secret that our marine waters are some of the more productive in the world. Fishermen have travelled from all over the world for more than 500 years to harvest fish of all sorts and, until the mid-20th century, whales. More than 20 species of whales have been observed, but many of these are relatively rare. By far the most common are humpback and minke whales. There are several hotspots around the island to see whales, including the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Twillingate, Cape Spear, St. Anthony, Bay de Verde and Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. I remember years ago the New Brunswick department of tourism proudly (but incorrectly) stating that they had “more whales, more often”. But they don’t. More than 5,000 humpbacks visit our shores, dwarfing the populations of the other Atlantic provinces.
And Wayne Ledwell has met many of these whales. Wayne was a fisherman who, over 20 years ago, was trained by Professor Jon Lien to release whales trapped in fishing gear. The late Professor Lien pioneered whale research in this province. When he started his work many years ago he realized that many whales were becoming injured or worse after they got entangled in fishing gear. There was also a human cost, since each entanglement would affect fishermen’s livelihoods. So Lien established a group that would quickly respond to a call from fishermen. It took years for him to gain the trust of our traditionally conservative fishermen, but the speed of their response, their sincere wish to help and – most importantly – their results, won the day. Professor Lien is gone, but Wayne carries on his legacy today.
Their success is nothing less than astonishing. Between 1979 and 2008, there were 1,209 large whale entanglements in the province. That’s an average of about 40 whales a year. Compare that with Maine, where there were 12 confirmed entanglements over a three year period (1997-1999) for an average of four per year – ten times less than Newfoundland. In Princeton, Massachusetts, the Centre for Coastal Studies proudly states that they disentangled “more than 200 large whales and other marine mammals” over a 30 year period. That’s certainly laudable, but small potatoes compared with Ledwell’s work. He also published a book on whales, which I suggest is an essential reference for anyone interested in the Newfoundland outdoors.
While Wayne is travelling the province releasing whales, Julie Huntington spends some of her precious time educating children about our marine environment. Julie has a special touch with children, who respond to her engaging manner. She impresses them with homemade life-sized cut-outs of Leatherback Sea Turtles, or wows them with real whale baleen (what some whales use to filter fish out of the sea water). Julie is a strong advocate for more outside play for children. Once, at the end of a presentation she was giving, she gently admonished the audience for keeping their children inside if it was raining even a little bit. No one minded, because she was right, of course.
I first became aware of Wayne Ledwell and his partner Julie Huntington when I worked for the Government of Canada more than a decade ago. I was a bureaucrat responsible for assessing funding applications and Wayne and Julie were clients. I remember reading with astonishment their annual reports and the whale rescue stories. I found them thrilling. I like to think that I advocated strongly on their behalf, but the truth of the matter is that I was as much in the way of their work as one would expect from a bureaucrat.
Each year, they must fight to find funds to maintain their shoestring budget. They have been tossed around from one government fund to another, never finding a stable funding source. In recent years, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has actually tendered open bids for contracts to disentangle whales – as if there are dozens of unemployed experts at releasing whales waiting around to submit bids on contracts. It’s laughable. Check out the website for the American Centre for Coastal Studies – I bet the radio helmet worn by the guy in the top photo costs more than a full year budget for our Whale Release and Strandings group.
Both Wayne and Julie have received the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s environmental award for outstanding individuals. This is entirely appropriate and, in my opinion, a good first step. To truly recognize their contribution to the conservation of our marine environment, I believe they deserve an award on a much larger scale – something like The Goldman Environmental Prize. Anyone interested in pursuing this, please let me know. I’d love to help. Maybe it will ease my conscience for entangling them in bureaucracy for all those years.
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