Q: What made you get so interested into Whales?
A: In part it was just growing up in Florida, being near the ocean a lot, and just never losing that childhood fascination with big animals. If I had to point to one specific moment, it would be a festival I went to in Iceland in 2001. I met some people there from the Faroe Islands who told me about how whaling is a big part of their culture. It was so odd, these people who seemed so like me in many ways, but had this one thing that was so different: the idea of hunting whales for food instead of just admiring them in the ocean. I started reading about the Faroe Islands and eventually went there to learn more about whaling. That got me interested in other places where whaling happened: Newfoundland, Japan, the Caribbean. I made my first trip to St. Vincent in 2008 and have been going there regularly to learn more ever since.
Q: On the sustainability question: How does the carbon footprint of Caribbean whaling compare to typical North American agricultural meat production? Whale meat vs pork BBQ, for example.
A: No question about it: whaling has a lower carbon footprint than livestock agriculture. Whales are actually carbon sinks—they absorb more carbon than they produce. Hunting them for food doesn’t release carbon (from the whales) into the atmosphere—it keeps it within the food web. The boats used in St. Vincent switched from sails and oars to motors during the late 20th century, so there is the carbon footprint of the gasoline engines to think about. Aside from that, there’s the motorized transport to distribute the meat and blubber around the island, mainly cars and trucks but the occasional ferry boat too. Of course, all this should be compared with the massive release of methane and other greenhouse gases from livestock feeding operations, as well as the jet and container ship emissions from importing meat from large continental countries to small islands like St. Vincent. Even if you compare whaling to local, Vincentian livestock-raising, it’s hard to argue for livestock from a purely climate-based position.
Q: Why had no one in the Caribbean islands done this research previously?
A: Some had. There’s a body of literature on Caribbean whaling going back to at least the early 20th century. It’s mostly descriptive—there was very little criticism of whaling before the environmental movements of the 1960s and 70s began. One of my favorite early works on Caribbean whaling is Chapter 2 of Frederic Fenger’s Alone in the Caribbean. In or around 1911 he visited whalers based on an island very close to St. Vincent and went out whaling with them. Even though it was about a century earlier, his experience was remarkably similar to mine.
As for the mercury research, there’s only been one study before mine to measure the mercury in Caribbean-caught whales and dolphins. It was in the 1970s in St. Lucia, and it found high levels but not nearly as high as what I found. Other scientists have studied mercury levels in people throughout the Caribbean and—unsurprisingly—the levels from St. Vincent were consistently near the top.
But to the point of your question, I think there are a lot of interesting and important subjects that science has largely ignored, just because they’re found in remote or obscure places. One of my favorite things about my field, geography, is that it’s place-based. There’s no such thing as a place that doesn’t matter to a geographer; we’re interested in everywhere!
Q: What do the whalers do now to make a living?
A: Most are still whaling. Some only part-time, as there’s a long tradition in St. Vincent of holding multiple part-time jobs (like fishing or farming) at the same time. At least one whaler has shifted to leading whale-watching tours, but this is difficult in St. Vincent, which doesn’t get as many tourists as many other Caribbean islands and has gotten even fewer since the pandemic began.
Q: Where is the mercury contamination coming from?
A: The biggest human-caused sources are coal combustion and gold mining. As Al Dove pointed out in the chat during the discussion after my talk, mercury is a non-point source pollutant, meaning that it’s emitted into the atmosphere and then rains down on the ocean (and the land, but the ocean is bigger) often hundreds or thousands of miles away from where it was emitted. This makes tracking it to its source, or sources, very difficult. I’m working with some other scientists now to try to use stable isotope analysis methods to basically take a “fingerprint” of the mercury we’re finding in the whales and compare it to the mercury emitted from known sources. If that works, I hope that it has implications for bringing justice to the people whose jobs and health were affected by polluters from far away.
Q: If whales have mercury, does that mean that all other seafood have mercury? is there any research done on various seafood to show which species in the sea have a higher concentration of mercury in their body.
A: Yes. A reliable rule is that species higher on the food chain will have higher levels of mercury than species lower on the food chain. It’s also important to take into account the longevity of the species (and the age of the individual fish, whale, etc. that you’re eating). The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program offers advice on which fish species can be consumed more safely and sustainably. See seafoodwatch.org for more information.
Q: Just curious, do you eat seafood?
I do, at least when I’m near the coast. I believe that humans are part of the natural environment and I have no problem with a sustainable carnivorous diet, with certain provisions for the respectful treatment and killing of animals taken into consideration. I respect others who have made different decisions. For example, Sylvia Earle, probably the world’s most famous oceanographer, advocates against eating seafood because of sustainability concerns. I also think place matters. A “good” diet (based on whatever criteria you use) in one place might not be the same as a “good” diet somewhere else. The most important things, I think, when choosing what to eat are to be informed and mindful. Too often we make our dietary choices based mainly on what’s convenient, cheap, or tasty. We should take the time to learn about our food, how it’s made, where it comes from, and—if it’s animal-based—how those animals lived and died. And we should let what we learn guide our decisions, after identifying and reflecting on our values. There are so many good books on this subject but two that I often recommend are Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds. Eating is so important—to our bodies and to the planet—that we really should give it the thought it deserves.