Hereafter to a re-release of Sea of Slaughter, an account of the state of the Atlantic Ocean.
I sit at the window of my home beside the Atlantic Ocean. My work is almost done. Having led me through so many dark and bloody chronicles, this book comes to an end. The question with which it began is answered.
The living world is dying in our time.
I look out over the unquiet waters of the bay, south to the convergence of sea and sky beyond which the North Atlantic heaves against the eastern seaboard of the continent. And in my mind s eye, I see it as it was.
Pod after spouting pod of whales, the great ones together with the lesser kinds, surge through waters everywhere a-ripple with living tides of fishes. Wheeling multitudes of gannets, kittiwakes, and other such becloud the sky. The stony finger marking the end of the long beach below me is clustered with resting seals. The beach itself flickers with a restless drift of shorebirds. In the bight of the bay, whose bottom is a metropolis of clams, mussels, and lobsters, a concourse of massive heads emerges amongst floating islands of eider ducks. Scimitar tusks gleam like a lambent flame ... the vision fails.
And I behold the world as it is now.
In all that vast expanse of sky and sea and fringing land, one gull soars in lonely flight - one drifting mote of life upon an enormous, almost empty stage.
When our forebears commenced their exploitation of this continent they believed the animate resources of the New World were infinite and inexhaustible. The vulnerability of that living fabric - the intricacy and fragility of its all-too-finite parts - was beyond their comprehension. It can at least be said in their defence that they were mostly ignorant of the inevitable consequences of their dreadful depredations.
We who are alive today can claim no such exculpation for our biocidal actions and their dire consequences. Modern man has increasing opportunity to be aware of the complexity and inter-relationship of the living world. If ignorance is to serve now as an excuse then it can only be wilful, murderous ignorance.
Five centuries of death-dealing on this continent is not to be gainsaid; but there are at least some indications that we may finally be developing the will and the conscience to look beyond the gratification of our own immediate needs and desires. Belatedly we seem to be trying to rejoin the community of living beings from which we have, for so long, alienated ourselves - and of which we have, for so long, been the mortal enemy.
Evidence of such a return to sanity has yet to be found in the attitudes and actions of those who control and direct the human world, but indications of it are to be seen in the actions of individuals and groups who, revolted by the frightful destruction to which we have subjected animate creation, are beginning to reject the killer beast within us.
It is to this new desire to reassert our indivisibility with life, to recognize the obligations incumbent on us as the most powerful and deadly species ever to exist, and to begin making amends for the havoc we have wrought that my own hopes for a continuance of life on earth now rest.
If we persevere we may succeed in making the human race humane ... at last. And then the Sea of Slaughter may again become a Sea of Life.
Twenty years have passed since I wrote the above. Now that the Hereafter has become the present, let us see how much has changed.
The Birds of Sea and Air
The clouds of shorebirds that once filled the coastal skies have continued to thin, as the numbers of individuals within them have declined - though perhaps not as precipitously as in the past. More than half the shorebird species are now at risk; many are threatened; and at least one - the piping plover - seems destined to follow the Eskimo curlew into extinction.
Most seabirds remain in decline. They are suffering from a continuing loss of breeding places; from massive oceanic pollution (especially oil spills, which despite official denials are increasing in frequency); from reduction by human fisheries of the mass of marine small fry upon which they feed; and from persecution by sport and commercial fishermen, fish farmers, and pot hunters.
Ospreys and bald eagles in remote areas are doing well enough, perhaps in part because they are such highly visible symbols of nature s majesty that we are prepared to admit them to our admiration and protection.
There has been a drastic slump in the numbers of many smaller birds, especially insectivores. This may be due in part to loss of habitat in their tropical and semitropical wintering grounds, which are being deforested at an appalling rate. However, the continuing use of insecticides and herbicides by the general public at home, but especially by agriculture and the forest industry, still plays a major part. Over a twenty-year period at least forty-three species of summer residents studied by the Mowat Environmental Institute research centre on Cape Breton Island have declined in numbers, some by as much as 80 per cent.
Overall numbers of ducks, geese, and other game birds have generally fallen, some precipitously, although a few species may still be holding their own, if at much-diminished levels from those of the not-so-distant past.
Meat, Hides, and Fur
All of the larger mammals prized by trophy and recreational hunters are afforded protection according to the best scientific protocol, in order to ensure a sufficiency of targets for those who enjoy blood sport. In consequence only a few large mammals are currently threatened with annihilation but, with some notable exceptions such as white-tailed deer, most maintain only vestigial numbers of what once was.
During the 1990s it seemed that fur-bearers were to be granted a new lease on life. The environmental movement came close to ending the truly abominable practice of slaughtering animals in order that their fur and skin could be used to advertise the human wearer s fashion, wealth, and prestige. Now, however, it would appear that the tide has been reversed. The environmental movement is increasingly being rejected by the body politic; increasingly ignored by governments and subjected to continuous denigration by industry and business. It is, in truth, itself threatened with becoming an endangered species.
The current resurrection of the fur trade makes the point. Only a few years ago animals such as the otter were considered to be hardly worth killing because their fur fetched so little on the market. Now, otters and most other fur-bearers are being killed with increasing avidity because, as a trapper recently exulted on television, Now we can get rich! Fur is back in fashion. Indeed a good many people in the fur garment business will doubtless grow rich - while many fur-bearers that were just beginning to recover from centuries of persecution will again be put at risk.
One break has appeared in the dark clouds gathering above the fur-bearers. As recently as the 1960s, the coyote, though a native of western Canada, found its way to the shores of the Atlantic and now inhabits all the maritime provinces, including Newfoundland. In some sense it has replaced the wolf, which was exterminated regionally long ago. Remarkably, the coyote has been able to find a niche for itself in our world. Unless a full-scale pogrom complete with bounties, poisons, and aerial hunting is mounted against it, the coyote may survive and even prosper in the Atlantic region. But already the alarm is being sounded. Deer hunters, some farmers, and those who seem innately unable to tolerate coexistence with other animals, have begun demanding that the coyote in the Atlantic provinces be exterminated.
Fish Out of Water
In 1983 Canada s extension of her jurisdiction to the two-hundred-mile offshore limit made me hope that the mass slaughter of fishes would at least be slowed. I was wrong. The savaging of the fish stocks by foreign fleets was at once replaced by an even more effective savaging by domestic fishing corporations.
During the following decade Canada s entire Atlantic fishery collapsed - as most of the fishes being sought were killed.
Since 1983 almost every major kind of fish in Atlantic coastal and offshore waters, including cod, haddock, pollock, most of the flat fishes, hake, skates, halibut, redfish, tuna, salmon, even sharks, have become (as the fishing industry delicately puts it) economically irrelevant.
There is no convincing evidence that they are likely to recover. According to Nova Scotia biologist Deborah MacKenzie, the destruction of bait fishes such as capelin and herring for their roe or for fertilizer seems to have inflicted chronic malnutrition (call it starvation) on the surviving stocks of many predacious fishes ranging from cod to salmon - a state which does not auger well for their chances of survival, let alone recovery.
Following on the destruction of the larger and most valuable kinds of fishes we are now fishing for whatever remains in unconscionable quantities. The spider crab, renamed snow crab for cosmetic reasons, is a prime example. First commercially fished in Atlantic waters only a decade ago, there are indications it may already be going the way of the cod. The spider crab may soon disappear and be forgotten, to be replaced in the profit columns of our ledgers by yet another doomed form of marine life.
It is apparent that nothing will be spared that can be processed into human food, cattle feed, fish meal for farmed fish, chemical feed stocks, or fertilizer. Anything and everything is up for grabs - including plankton, the foundation of all animate life in the seas and oceans.
Our attitude toward this ongoing holocaust can still best be summed up in the words of the dissident scientist I quoted in 1983, who insisted on anonymity.
For those bastards there s no tomorrow ... No matter what anyone in the fishing industry or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans tells you, there s just one thing on everybody s mind: make money ... make as much as you can before the whole damn bottom drops out of ocean fisheries.
Or, as he might as well have said: before the oceans die.
Giants of the Sea
Despite strenuous efforts on their behalf by a few resolute human beings (amongst whom I list Paul Watson s Sea Shepherd Society), only residual numbers of great whales still exist. Many species are so reduced that their long-term survival is in grave doubt. For example, there may only be seven or eight hundred black right whales extant; and the arctic right, or bowhead, probably numbers not many more than a thousand. Although nominally protected, both are still being killed: the black right by commercial fishing nets, and run down by ships (including high-speed warships); and the bowhead by natives in Alaska and northern Canada who hunt it with exploding harpoons and antitank rifles mainly for sport, but also to demonstrate political ownership of arctic resources.
Despite the tacit admission of the industry-dominated International Whaling Commission that all species of great whales are in fact endangered, Japan and Norway continue commercial whaling on a major scale. They are aided and abetted by several smaller countries engaged in frequently illegal whaling on Japan s behalf. Japan will continue killing whales so long as whaling remains a profitable enterprise, although the official Japanese government position is that whale killing is all done for scientific reasons. In any case, for the most part science has always been, and presumably will remain, at the service of commerce.
So all whales, both great and small, continue to be at risk and to suffer heavy losses from pollution; from naval and commercial shipping, especially those that use explosives or high-powered sonar; and from the diminution of their food supplies caused by mankind s massive overfishing, which is presently turning all of the planet s oceans into one common Sea of Slaughter.
Death on Ice - the Finfeet
One of the few good-news stories from the western Atlantic region has to do with the return of the grey seal, which in the mid-1940s was thought to be extinct in Canadian waters. Unbeknownst to us a handful had managed to survive and, taking advantage of the respite afforded by the Second World War, when men were concentrating their destructive energies on one another, the grey seals staged a modest comeback. When, in the 1950s, their presence was discovered by industry and government, a concerted effort was made to eliminate them on the usual grounds that they were robbing us of fish that were rightly ours. However, despite a vigorous campaign waged against them by the federal Department of Fisheries using bounty payments and annual raids on the whelping grounds by Fisheries protection officers armed with guns and clubs, grey seals held on and now may number several thousand. Their future might have been considered reasonably secure - except that the greys and the two species of ice seals, the harp and the hood, have been fingered by industry and government as major culprits in the collapse of the fisheries and as the most significant obstacle in the way of rebuilding commercial fish stocks.
This is the mantra; one which by constant repetition has gained the semblance of truth and which is now so powerfully established in the public mind that those who rule us can safely orchestrate the massacre of the seals.
Although for a few years in the 1990s a temporarily aroused humanity on both sides of the Atlantic was able, through the use of economic boycotts, to force Canada to cease slaughtering the remaining ice seals, the Big Lie has now gained supremacy and the slaughter has begun anew - and with increased vigour. The largest massacre of any marine mammals - probably of any large mammals in the sea or on the land - is again taking place each spring in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the northern coast of Newfoundland. Between 1998 and 2002 the skins of about 1,400,000 harp and hood seals of all ages, including hundreds of thousands that had barely been weaned, were tallied by Fisheries Protection Officers. But this figure, horrendous as it is, takes no account of seals illegally landed, or killed or fatally wounded and not recovered during the gun hunt, which represents a major part of the slaughter. If these additional deaths are factored in, the total kill rises to at least 2,000,000 seals, and may considerably exceed that figure.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and its provincial counterparts assert that an exploding harp seal population currently exceeds five million animals (independent assessments put that figure at less than three million) and, simply in order to keep the explosion in check, we must cull (that sanitary euphemism for kill ) at least 350,000 a year over and above the toll taken by bad ice years and other natural causes.
To this end, the federal government has given the seal fishery a TAC (total allowable catch) of 975,000 over the next three years. The TAC on seals is seldom enforced, however, and in recent years the actual kill has often exceeded it.
There is no question as to what is afoot. When natural losses, the untallied collateral kill, and at least 150,000 killed annually in Greenland and Canadian arctic waters are factored in, it seems certain that the overall death toll will suffice to bring about the effective extermination of the ice seals.
Will that bring back the cod and the salmon and all the rest of the vanished multitudes that once abounded in and around the Sea of Slaughter? Or will it simply add one more ghastly act of biocide to our bloody history?
The proceeds from this book are committed to the support of the work of the Mowat Environmental Institute, a registered charitable organization for the study, protection, and enhancement of the natural environment and its inhabitants.
Amongst the MEI s current projects are:
Oasis: Designed to encourage and enable individuals and organizations to protect, restore, and monitor habitats and ecosystems in order to ensure that these and their natural inhabitants survive and prosper. The emphasis is on developing privately owned land as plant and wildlife sanctuaries to serve as elements in a network of interacting oases linking major protected regions such as provincial and national parks and preserves.
Future Sea: An ongoing study of what is happening to life in the oceans, and of what can be done to prevent and to repair damage thereto. Special emphasis is on Canada s coastal seas. Republication of Sea of Slaughter is a key part of the Future Sea project. The MEI hopes to ensure that at least one copy of this book will be available in every secondary and post-secondary school in Canada.
If you would like to support the MEI or any of its projects, or if you have any inquiries, please write to:
The Director Mowat Environmental Institute RR1, River Bourgeois Nova Scotia B0E 2X0 Canada
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