Yesterday, in an article with the spectacularly dull headline “Officials and Scientists Debate the Criteria for Rescuing Animals,” the Washington Post summarized the debate over NOAA’s decision not to rescue a group of 16 dolphins in a NJ river. The dolphins swam up the river in the summer, but didn’t leave when the water iced over and the fish left. Three died and the rest have disappeared, either making it back to the ocean or drowning under the ice.
I understand that’s neat to see wild dolphins in the Jersey ‘burbs, and that it’s tough to watch a sympathetic and charismatic animal slowly die. But the natural world isn’t Seaworld with happy Shamu doing happy jumps for happy kids – adorable animals die all the time. Sometime they starve to death because the parents have two chicks and only ever intend to feed one. Sometimes they get swiftly decapitated. Sometimes they get their tongues ripped out by other cute and charismatic animals, and die a slow and horrible death while their helpless mother watches. If animals die for natural reasons, like if they swam up a river and didn’t leave even though they could have, then that’s the way it goes.
I find it especially insane that David DeGrazia, the chair of George Washington University’s philosophy department, is quote in the WaPo article as saying:
“We should regard them to having the same moral entitlements as we have,” DeGrazia said. “Even if they’re not human, we’re talking about individuals who matter a great deal, who are in distress.”
If you care about dolphins – and I admit that while I profess a distaste for charismatic megafauna, I squeal like, well, a dolphin when they surf our bow wave – you should stop wasting your time yelling at NOAA about its eminently sane marine mammal rescue policy. (NOAA will indeed rescue them if they’re endangered or if the danger is human-caused). I also think that getting tied up in Western imperialist knots over that gory Japanese dolphin hunt is a waste of time – while a couple thousand dolphins are killed every year, bottlenose dolphins are not endangered and it’s just one hunt once a year in one place. That single hunt is hardly going to prompt McDonald’s to start selling Filet-O-Flipper.
Instead, here’s some massive worldwide problems that threaten dolphins everywhere – not just 16 in New Jersey and 2,500 in Japan:
- Extinction. The Yangtze river dolphin is extinct, and the vaquita (a tiny coastal porpoise in the Gulf of California) will be next – unless efforts to keep them from drowning in fishing nets succeed.
- Pollution. Mercury levels in dolphin flesh are so high that the Japanese dolphin hunt might end itself. That’s good for those particular dolphins in the short term, but mercury threatens their long-health of marine mammals everywhere. Fight against coal power plants and for renewable energy.
- Entanglement with fishing gear. According to the National Marine Fishery Service, this is the most common way that small marine mammals are killed by humans. Advocate for controlling & eliminating gill nets and drift nets, and for more responsibility in controlling ghost nets.
Of course, these are hard – way harder than helicoptering some soon-to-die dolphins out to sea – and probably wouldn’t make a good movie at Sundance. Such is life. So let those misguided 16 dolphins perish as nature intended, and let’s focus on saving millions more.
Related: The Southern Fried Scientist has a sense of porpoise.