Once upon a time

From IFAW Blog 16 April

Gather round, children, make yourselves comfortable. It’s Friday afternoon and I’m going to tell you a story, a true story. Alfie, stop pointing that water-pistol at Sheppy the cat. You’ll learn some math, science (biology, mostly), geography, history and domestic science, specially accounting. Cooking may come later.

Once upon a time there were about half-a-million big whales – fin whales – living half their lives in the ocean down near the South Pole, where – as I told you last week - Captain Falcon Scott, an Englishman, and Mr Roald Admundsen, a Norwegian, went walking with their dogs and sledges, and a bit later, another Englishman, Sir Ernest Shackleton went in his ship, Endurance, got stuck in the ice, and had to walk, climb and row 600 miles for help at a place where they were hauling dead whales out of the surf. The other half of their time – the whales’ time – they swam to warmer water where they had sex and gave birth and suckled their babies.

Soon after Sir Ernest got home – he was a very brave, strong man - some of his compatriots – c-o-m-p-a-t-r-i-o-t-s – and also some Norwegians decided to go down south to blow up lots of fin whales (and some others, twice as big, called blue whales). Actually, they blew each whale up twice: first with a bomb, the second time by pumping air into them to make them float. A full-grown fin whale weighs nearly 50 tons, as much as two school buses. So they had to use huge winches to haul the whales up onto their ships, called factory-ships. There were so many whales around that these men used some of them as fenders hanging over the sides of their ships - so that when two ships bumped into each other they didn’t get dented - and as buoys with flags stuck on them so they wouldn’t get lost. Anyway, sixty years later there were only about 20,000 fin whales left and the blowing-up had to stop so that they did not become extinct. The remaining whales continued to feed, migrate and have babies.

Then some biologists said if only we had left half of them alive they would have continued to increase in number at about two-and-a half per cent a year – that is about 6000 whales. If we blew up only that many whales every year then the number alive would stay about the same. They decided to call that idea “sustainable use” of whales, and that’s good. And the 250,000 they called optimal, which is Ancient Greek for “Best”. Instead of that we have been shooting three or four times as many, so of course the numbers went down. We’ll call that “whale- mining”; the whales run out, just like coal mines and oil wells, and that’s bad, but profitable

So, anyway, at about the middle of the 1970s decade – you’ve heard of the Beatles, I’m sure – the blowing-up pretty well stopped, the English, Scottish and Norwegian whalers gave up, went home, as did the Dutch who had joined them a bit late in the day, and the Russians and Ukrainians also stopped blowing up fin whales and most other kinds of big whales except gray whales. Some of the Norwegians built shipyards; the Scots bought a lot of trucks to move peoples’ belongings around; the Russians saved their “earnings” in piggy-banks in Zurich.

Things went pretty quiet for a while and the fin whales got on with their sex and eating and swimming and leaping and diving – what a life they had! The remaining 20,000 began to increase at about five per cent a year – what we call the theory of population dynamics says that the fewer there are – people or animals – the faster they breed, and as their numbers increase so their rate of increase decreases. Got that?  The Reverend Dr Malthus will talk to you about all that next year, as part of Religious Instruction. By about now – 2010AD - we can work out that there should be 80,000 fin whales feeding around the South Pole. If we wait another twenty years there should be about 150,000 fin whales milling about.. We’d still have to wait quite a few more years before they reach their “optimum” of 250,000, by what banks call “compound interest” (Mr Pythagorus will be telling you all about that next week.)

Now, go out and play, buy a coke and a donut from nice Mr McDonald, and I’ll tell you the second part of the story when you come back. And, Alfie, leave that water pistol in here, please.
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Well, it’s now here and now. The only person left who has a whaling factory is Mr Toyota. It’s a small one, getting a bit old and crockety, and he’s just been blowing up small whales, called minkes, and doing biology with them. too. He shot a few fin whales, just to see what they were eating, but they were too heavy for his winch to haul up onto his factory-ship. He was thinking “I must sell or scuttle this one and buy a bigger and faster one so that I can blow-up both minke and fin whales, and perhaps one day even blue whales – what joy! But he has a d-i-l-e-m-m-a. Shall I start mining them soon – and make money quickly – or, right now, or after waiting a little longer, then blow them up sustainably and make less money every year but for more years? Or shall I wait until they are optimal and then mine them and make lots more money. He did some quick sums. He reckoned a big fin whale was worth $100,000. His advisors told him that a sustainable annual catch from 80,000 fin whales would be a bit less than 3000, so that would be worth at least $200 million if he could sell it all instead of dumping all that good whalemeat in a landfill as that funny man in Iceland had done. (Actually My Toyoto thought in Yen but I don’t want to make it more complicated for you). That seemed like a lot of money, but it would cost a lot to send several ships to the South Pole and back, pay their crews, buy the new biofuels, charter a big ship to shuttle the meat and spare fuel back and forth to Tokyo, not to mention the bucksheesh (look up your Persian dictionaries, dear boys and girls. Signor Leonardo da Vinci, perverse man that he was, wrote it backwards in his journal) to the many people who helped him with the paperwork. Mr Toyota has had this hobby for so long it’s now sort of traditional, like Carnival or Chinese New Year. But keeping up traditions, even new ones, is costly – there’s the fancy costumes, the fares to exotic places, the tuna-sushi dinners, the hand-outs everyone holds their hands out for. It’s hard.

What he decides to do will depend on the rate of (compound) interest his bank will charge on the money he will have to borrow to buy a bigger ship, that, he thinks, might cost him $100 million. But lucky Mr Toyota lives in a Welfare State and he can be given money by his Government to help him in his enterprise and bail him out id need be – like using a bucket to scoop water out of a leaking, maybe sinking, ship - as they do in America with failed financial institutions as they call their enormous casinos. But how much, how much?  The banks’ rate of interest on loans might change for the worse if he waits; his Government might decide to do something else with its – his, our - money, such as prospecting for gold or copper, help run a war, plant oil-palms or increase retirement pensions. As Mr Sam Goldwyn, the famous American producer of movies is supposed to have said: “Prediction is hard, especially of the future!”

So, Mr Toyota is still thinking about all this; it makes his head hurt. He doesn’t really want to wait many more years, so it’s probably now or never. He could just sell his little factory-ship, sink it accidentally on purpose and collect the insurance, convert it inyo a floating hotel with resident ghosts, or do something completely different, - such as build automobiles - and have a simpler and perhaps more interesting, less risky life. He thinks maybe he should go ask his friends in America, New Zealand and Chile and some other romantic places for advice. But he must, like all of you, and everyone else, make his or her own decisions about Life and Everything.

Will the fin whales, or Mr Toyota, life happily ever after? Next Friday I’ll tell you a story about happiness. And neuroscience – the study of brains. And about what whales do with their enormous brains.