Les Beldo on “Whales and Other Fish”

Les Beldo admitted that the title of his talk is a “cheap provocation,” since, technically, whales are not fish. However, Beldo said, in the eyes of the US federal government, they are.


Les Beldo, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies at Williams (photo: Center for Humans and Nature).

On Friday, April 28, Les Beldo, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies, spoke to the Log Lunch crowd about how the legal classification of whales affects their conservation.


According to Beldo, whales have enjoyed a paradigmatic status in the conservation movement. They are considered “sacrosanct” by some environmentalists and are among the animals some argue deserve legal “personhood,” he said.


Despite the personalization of whales in the public imagination (think “Flipper”), they are merely “abstractions” and “elements in statistical models” in the eyes of the law, said Beldo. According to him, the agency that controls all things whale-related is NOAA Fisheries. Beldo said that the regulation of whales as fishing commodities narrows the range of ways activists can argue about whales.


To illustrate his points about whale conservation and regulation, Beldo told the Log Lunch crowd about the Makah tribe of Clallam County, Washington.


The Makah have traditionally hunted North Pacific gray whales. According to Beldo, their attempts to revive this tradition were opposed by activists interested in whale conservation. In 2000, he said, Makah whale hunting was shut down by lawsuits.


The number of whales allowed to be hunted each year is determined through a separate population analysis of each stock involved. A stock is defined as a genetically, often geographically, isolated population, said Beldo.

A gray whale breaching (photo: Merrill Gosho, NOAA).


According to Beldo, the fight between whale conservation activists and the Makah came down to the separation between two Pacific gray whale stocks. According to the Marine Mammal Center, the Eastern stock, which is the largest, ranges between the Bering and Chukchi Seas above Alaska and Baja California, Mexico. The Western stock is based around Sakhalin Island, Russia, and according to the Marine Mammal Center is “close to extinction, with only 100-150 individuals.”


According to Beldo, tagging studies found that the two stocks interbreed, with the Western stock migrating east to do so. Conservation activists seized on this fact, he said, which meant that the small Western stock was now involved in the hunt. Activists calculated that the sustainable yield of the small Western stock would be only one whale every seventeen years, Beldo explained. However, proponents of the Makah’s whaling have argued that the small size of the Western stock means that chances of the Makah killing one of these whales is also small. With this probability taken into account, he said, the sustainable yield rate is much higher. According to Beldo, conservation activists argued that the real problem is members of the two stocks are visually indistinguishable, so accidental culling of a Western whale cannot be prevented.


According to Beldo, these activists have moved from ‘You just can’t kill whales’ to ‘You can’t kill whales because you can’t tell them apart.’ Beldo pointed out that this argument implies that if the two stocks were distinguishable, it would be acceptable to kill them.


Beldo ended with advice to activists: “be careful with bureaucracies,” and avoid sacrificing a broad moral argument for a narrow technical one. According to Beldo, recent times have demonstrated that a technical argument can be made irrelevant by a dramatic political regime shift. Technical arguments may gain activists traction while current regulations stand, but fights based on timeless principles are more enduring.


— Sophia Schmidt ’17