Last May, I posted a review of Wissner boning (aka “German plastic boning”), and mentioned (okay, kind of ranted) that baleen wasn’t an option for boning as whales are an endangered species. My friend and fellow costumer Sahrye emailed me privately with some very interesting information on whaling and conservation — she’s a marine biologist and so knows far more about this than I do. I asked if, in the spirit of discussion, she’d be willing to share what she wrote with readers of my blog and she said she would.
So here you are, my first guest post ever, written by Sahrye — whose blog (It Came From the Stash!) is fabulous, by the way!
In Defense of the Use of Baleen in Hobbyist and Recreation Corsetry
There have been several recent online discussions about the legalities and ethics of using baleen in hobbyist corsetry. This is my personal opinion, as a marine biologist specializing in coastal and marine issues and an amateur costumer, of the acceptability of using Alaskan native-hunted, American provenance baleen in costume and recreation corsets. This piece does not represent the opinion of the federal government or any agency of the federal government. For specific guidance on the legal use of baleen you should contact the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (www.noaa.gov) or Marine Mammal Commission (http://mmc.gov/).
This piece is not a discussion of the morality of hunting whales or the rights of Alaskan natives (Inuit/Eskimos) to hunt whales.
I have three main points: 1) why it is legal and ethical to buy baleen as a “native handicraft”; 2) the Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort seas (northern Pacific Ocean) bowhead whale population is substantially recovered to the point where it could potentially be delisted as endangered; 3) over-emphasis on charasmatic megafauna is deleterious to habitat protection and the recovery of other species.
NOAA provides an informative and accessible page on Purchasing, Finding or Possessing Marine Mammal Skins, Muktuk, Baleen, and Bones http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/protectedresources/buying.htm. This page states, in part, “Baleen (normally this is from the endangered bowhead whale) may be legally sold by Alaska Natives as Traditional Native Handicraft under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). The baleen must be cleaned and polished to qualify as handicraft. Once purchased, bowhead baleen may be transported out of State, but may not be subsequently sold or taken outside of the United States.” While in Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2012, I took some photos of baleen available in a shop and contacted the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Office in Juneau to confirm that the baleen had been cleaned and polished and also was legally sold. Baleen that is legal to sell has been polished to a smooth texture and black color. “Raw” baleen that is not legal to sell is often a lighter, grayer color and is dull in appearance. According to NOAA, polishing baleen constitutes “significantly altered” and allows it to be sold as a native handicraft. I encourage anyone who has concerns about baleen that is for sale to contact the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Office (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ole/ak_alaska.html).
Bowhead whale hunting, and selling traditional native handicrafts made from baleen, supports an important part of the cultural and social traditions of Alaskan native tribes. The webpage for the Inupiat people of Point Hope, Alaska (Tikigaq people) specifically addresses Inupiat whale hunting: “Eskimos have hunted whales for centuries. F or at least 2,000 years, the cultural and social structure of northern whaling villages have centered around the annual hunt. Often times, landing a whale is the most important community event of the year” (http://www.tikigaq.com/category/shareholder/point-hope/). There is a lot of information available in journal articles and online about the cultural importance of whaling in Alaskan native cultures (Creason, 2004; Sepez, 2002; Sandlos, 2001) and the rights of Alaskan natives to hunt for bowhead and other whale species. In her book Baleen Basketry of the North Alaskan Eskimo (1998), Molly Lee discusses how important creating baleen handicrafts for the tourist trade is in continuing the practice of traditional handicrafts, and providing Barrow/Tikigaq inhabitants a local alternative to wage-work on the trans-Alaskan pipeline. Selling the baleen to tourists provides an additional modern “use” for whale baleen that helps to support Alaskan native traditions and ancestral lands. No whales in the U.S. are being hunted to specifically provide bowhead whale baleen, nor any other commercial whale products, and all whale populations in U.S. territorial waters continue to be regulated and protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Commercial whaling over three centuries critically jeopardized global whale populations. The Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other laws and regulations, protect populations and habitats to support the recovery of whale populations. These laws have already had a noticeable effect on some whale species, specifically the E. North Pacific grey whale, which was delisted from the endangered species list in 1994 and is considered to be recovered (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/esa/other.htm#delisted). Recent scientific studies have shown that the population of Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort seas (northern Pacific Ocean) bowhead whales has now recovered to a level where this species may also be eligible to be delisted (Gerber, 2007; George, 2004; Shelden, 2001; Rooney, 2001). Even though bowhead whales are still listed, this specific population has recovered with sufficient genetic diversity that they could be delisted and not considered an endangered species. Purchasing baleen from Alaskan native-hunted whales from this population is not jeopardizing the continued existence of this whale species. This is not to say all whale species are recovering, in fact the largest cause of mortality for many critically endangered whale species are ship strikes from cargo ships (Kraus, 2005; Jensen, 2003). Importing plastic boning from China or Germany may have larger cumulative impacts to critically endangered whale populations, both in ship strikes and climate change emissions, than any amount of Alaskan native hunting could ever have.
And now a rant about the overemphasis on whales, and other cute critters (or “charismatic megafauna”) amongst the general public, and how that affects conservation and endangered species. Public opinions about which animals are worth saving have resulted in disproportionate efforts in conserving certain cuddly and large endangered species at the expense of others. For instance, everyone knows whales are endangered, but despite ongoing education efforts by public agencies and non-profits, many people do not know about the many critically endangered species that we blithely impact every day with our normal lives. The San Francisco Bay Area has at least 30 animal species that are currently on the federal endangered species list, and there are even more on the California state endangered species list. The populations and critical habitats of these animals are constantly at risk from ongoing development, carbon emissions, and water usage that enables us to live our comfortable lives importing fabric from across the globe and traveling to see the next fantastic museum exhibit. The disproportionate emphasis on whales, such that they prompt impassioned defenses on costuming blogs, while species in our own backyards go extinct, is absolutely infuriating to me. While the focus on whales and other cuddly critters was necessary for passing landmark environmental laws, it has become problematic in allocating resources for habitat conservation, and in getting the general public to understand the other major issues in saving species, such as habitat fragmentation and biodiversity (Mace, 2007; Barney, 2005; Walpole, 2002). This also prevents these other issues from gaining the monetary backing and very important legal protection that could save other critically endangered habitats and species.
It is clear that it is legal to purchase cleaned and polished bowhead whale baleen from Alaskan natives. Further, I contend that purchase of this baleen is ethical, both because it supports the continuing cultural tradition of Alaskan native whale hunting, and because the population of Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort seas (northern Pacific Ocean) bowhead whales is recovered to a sustainable level for appropriate levels of hunting. Focusing our conservation efforts, and internet ire, on charismatic species, like whales, disregards the complexities of conserving habitats and diverts money and resources from the vast majority of less photogenic, but still endangered species.
And a whole bunch of References (all easily available through Google Scholar or your local public library):
Creason, Anne M. Culture Clash: The Influence of Indigenous Cultures on the International Whaling Regime. 35 Cal. W. Int’l L.J. 83 (2004-2005)
Jennifer Sepez. Treaty Rights and the Right to Culture Native American Subsistence Issues in US Law (2002). Cultural Dynamics. vol. 14 no. 2 143-159
John Sandlos. From the Outside Looking in: Aesthetics, Politics, and Wildlife Conservation in the Canadian North. Environmental History.Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 6-31
L.R. Gerber, A.C. Keller, D.P. DeMaster (2007), Ten thousand and increasing: Is the western Arctic population of bowhead whale endangered?. Biological Conservation. Volume 137, Issue 4,Pages 577-583
Shelden, K. E. W., Demaster, D. P., Rugh, D. J. and Olson, A. M. (2001), Developing Classification Criteria under the U.S. Endangered Species Act: Bowhead Whales as a Case Study. Conservation Biology, 15: 1300–1307.
George, J. C. , Zeh, J., Suydam, R. and Clark, C. (2004), ABUNDANCE AND POPULATION TREND (1978-2001) OF WESTERN ARCTIC BOWHEAD WHALES SURVEYED NEAR BARROW, ALASKA. Marine Mammal Science, 20: 755–773.
Rooney, A. P., Honeycutt, R. L. and Derr, J. N. (2001), HISTORICAL POPULATION SIZE CHANGE OF BOWHEAD WHALES INFERRED FROM DNA SEQUENCE POLYMORPHISM DATA. Evolution, 55: 1678–1685.
Scott D. Kraus, et al. (2005) North Atlantic Right Whales in Crisis. Science 22: 309 (5734), 561-562
Jensen, A.S. and G.K. Silber. (2003) Large Whale Ship Strike Database. U.S. Department of
Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum. NMFS-OPR- , 37 pp.
Mace, G. M.,Possingham, H. P.,Leader-Williams, N. (2007) Prioritizing choices in conservation. Topics in Conservation.
Erin C. Barney, Joel J. Mintzes, Chiung-Fen Yen (2005). Assessing Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behavior Toward Charismatic Megafauna: The Case of Dolphins The Journal of Environmental Education. Vol. 36, Iss. 2
Matthew J. Walpole and Nigel Leader-Williams (2002).Tourism and flagship species in conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation. Volume 11, Number 3, 54