Ramage: Saving the Whales? There’s an App for That

Posted April 23, 2012 at 6:17pm

Some days it seems our ship of state sails through troubled waters. Yet even in seasons of political polarization, issues surface that unite Americans from sea to shining sea and across the partisan breach. One such example: saving the whales.

A national survey of registered voters conducted earlier this month by the president’s own pollster, Joel Benenson, shows overwhelming majorities of Americans want this Congress and the Obama administration to take action to protect whales. This is good news and not a moment too soon. Because in 2012, 40 years after President Richard Nixon first signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, our planet’s great whale species are facing more threats than ever.

Consider the endangered North Atlantic right whale. This slow-swimming species, so named because Yankee whalers deemed it the “right” whale to hunt, migrates up and down our East Coast from Maine to Florida. Once so abundant that early New England settlers alleged you could walk across Cape Cod Bay on their backs, there are now fewer than 400 of these ancient creatures left.

Human threats to right whales have increased in recent years, and given their fragile population status, the loss of even one of these leviathans can have a massive effect on the fate of the species. In addition to marine pollution, entanglement in outmoded fishing gear and deafening underwater noise, these gentle giants face the chronic deadly threat of collisions with large commercial vessels moving in and out of Boston Harbor.

But we can save them. Thanks to a mosaic of well-crafted conservation measures championed in recent years by federal and state officials across the political spectrum, right whales now swim more safely through waters they have navigated for millennia. And an additional shot of American ingenuity unveiled two weeks ago by a proud coalition of government, industry and nonprofit stakeholders just might give beleaguered right whales a fighting chance at survival for generations to come.

A new Whale Alert iPad and iPhone app now puts real-time visual, acoustic and nautical chart information at the fingertips of ship captains on the bridge of their vessels, alerting them to the presence of endangered whales. This new technology saves mariners time and hassle and will save the lives of right whales. Welcome to 21st-century whale conservation, in which diverse stakeholders from different sectors converge and collaborate and put the fate and future of endangered species literally within reach and in our hands.

Thanks to the generosity of the Davis Conservation Foundation and strong support from Massport, the Boston Harbor Pilot Association, the U.S. Coast Guard, NYK shipping and other leaders, we have been able to put iPads into the hands of enthusiastic mariners piloting this unprecedented project. The Whale Alert app is a runaway hit; not just for mariners but for concerned citizens from Cape Cod to California who want to learn more about whales and how we can all help protect them.

Our nation’s migration from world leader in commercial whaling to world leader in whale conservation was an amazing American journey. And the global ban on commercial whaling, adopted 30 years ago this year, with strong personal support from President Ronald Reagan, is one of the most important environmental legacies of his generation. Like the whales it sought to protect, that tremendous conservation track record is now at risk. But there is reason for hope.

After two years of dangerous drift in its approach, the Obama administration has made a course correction and is now continuing this proud tradition of American leadership, adopting a series of measures to persuade the government of Iceland to end its illicit whaling activities and taking a more consistent, pro-conservation approach at the International Whaling Commission.

This is good policy and good politics. Eighty-nine percent of American voters want their government to help enforce the worldwide ban on commercial whaling. Seventy-seven percent want Congress and the administration to undertake a broader whale conservation program to address the wider array of threats facing whales in the 21st century.

Such a program will be advanced this week in the House Natural Resources Committee room, where a new “Blueprint for Whale Conservation” will be released. The result of 18 months of effort, building on recommendations from across the conservation community, this new blueprint presents a threat-by-threat road map for policymakers concerned with protecting whales in U.S. waters and worldwide.

America is a nation proud of our whaling heritage, of “iron men in wooden boats” who set to sea and returned with the oil that lit the lamps of the western world. Now, after two centuries of commercial whaling and a host of other conservation challenges, our nation can again lead the world in whale protection.

We have a generational opportunity and a moral obligation to do so. For mariners and land-lubbers, misty-eyed whale huggers and jaded political animals alike, the way forward is clear. We can save the whales in the 21st century.

Patrick R. Ramage is whale program director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.