Speculation on ice-trapped whales: science-based fiction vs. dishonest science

Reposted from Polar Bear Science

Posted on December 6, 2020 | 

Ice entrapment of whales is known to happen across the Arctic, including Davis Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. How common such phenomena were in the past or might be in the future are subjects of conjecture. However, while speculation is the bread-and-butter of science-based fiction, it is the bane of peer-reviewed science.

I’ve written two novels informed by science set a bit in the future (2025-2026) in Eastern Canada: EATEN was set in Newfoundland and my latest book UPHEAVAL –see a review here – is set in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. In UPHEAVAL, one of the issues I explore is ice entrapment of large whales, like North Atlantic right whales. I speculate in the story whether carcasses of ice-killed whales might provide a powerful enough attraction to lure Davis Strait polar bears down from Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – and if they did, what might be the repercussions of that shift in distribution.

Here I argue that a novel is the appropriate place for this kind of speculation and researchers who offer such conjecture to the public in a way that conflates a science-informed guess with evidence-based fact risks eroding public trust in science.

Both of my novels are set in regions that few would call ‘the Arctic’ yet both have seasonal sea ice and ice-associated marine mammals, including harp seals, polar bears, belugas, and north Atlantic right whales. There is also a long history of hunting these animals and recent successes in conservation efforts aimed at their recovery have had some unintended consequences. For example, after decades of over-hunting, there has been a huge increase in harp seal numbers off Newfoundland and Labrador over the last 30 years that has helped polar bear numbers in Davis Strait to recover from centuries of over-hunting because harp seals are a critical food source for these bears. EATEN explored the possibilities of what might happen if that food resource suddenly failed.

Similarly, effective conservation of North Atlantic Right whales (below) has also resulted in increased numbers after having been over-hunted for centuries. However, in recent years some have become trapped in the sea ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and died. The timing and location of some of these ice-entrapment events suggests a few right and blue whales have re-discovered traditional feeding areas in the northern Gulf, along the south shore of Quebec – which we know about because that’s where Basque whalers set up hunting operations in 1520-1625.

The following excerpt (my bold) is from a commentary article published in the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Chronicle Herald 22 March 2019 (by Paul Brodie, a former DFO employee specializing in whale research), Pack ice could pose new threat to migrating right whales:

Early commercial whaling was conducted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by Basque whalers from 1520 to 1625, after fishermen returned with news of abundant whale stocks. Right and bowhead whales, attracted to the northern Gulf by concentrations of zooplankton, were in numbers sufficient to sustain whaling for generations using existing technology.

The present global numbers for right whales may be as high as 20,000, consisting of several populations that are either stable or increasing. Of this number, the 425-450 North Atlantic right whales initially summering in the Bay of Fundy/Gulf of Maine appear to be of greatest concern. Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear were the main causes of mortality.

Numbers of this monitored population have shifted to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where some 30-40 per cent now reside during the summer. However, this comes at the cost of an additional source of mortality: that of exposure to shifting pack ice.

Should right whales rediscover the ancient feeding and whaling grounds of the northern Gulf, they will be further compromised. There is a long history of what must amount to hundreds of large whales being ice-trapped and smothered, and more recently in 2015, at least six blue whales were trapped and died in heavy ice.

In the spring of 2017, there was record pack ice off Newfoundland and Labrador and Newfoundland, trapping many fishing vessels. It was well-documented by the media. There was also a sequence of right whale carcasses in various stages of decomposition, drifting in the ice water to the southern Gulf, probably released as northern pack ice opened up and deteriorated. Several mortalities were attributed to ship strikes and gear entanglement, and the majority to “blunt force trauma,” which can occur when hundreds of square kilometres of wind- and current-driven rafted pack ice (each square kilometre weighing 500,000 to one million tonnes) encases and smothers large whales for days or weeks.

Blue whales wintering on the continental shelf begin exploring the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Cabot Strait as early as late March, moving northward along the ice edge as they pass Port aux Basques. My first direct observation was of two blue whales feeding close to the ice front in the Strait of Belle Isle in April 1967, which seemed rather perilous should the pack ice shift toward the shore. In the spring of 2015, six or more blue whales, as well as humpbacks and sperm whales were lost.

Should right whales occupy their historic northern feeding areas, they would suffer a similar fate. The year 2017 was one of record pack ice along the Newfoundland and Labrador northern coasts: a year when at least 12 right whale carcasses were discovered in the central and southern Gulf.

Read the whole thing here.

In constructing the storyline for UPHEAVAL, I wondered whether these whale victims of ice entrapment in the Gulf could become an attractant for polar bears, as has been recorded across the Arctic from Wrangel Island to Pond Inlet and Disko Bay, Greenland, amongst others. I speculated whether carcasses of ice-killed whales might provide a powerful enough attraction to lure Davis Strait polar bears down from Labrador and the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – and if they did, what might happen next, especially if the region is hit by a tsunami while it’s covered in sea ice.

Speculation such as this is what science-based fiction is all about and is the appropriate forum for this kind of guesswork.

Contrast this with a paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that involved similar levels of imagination but was passed off as ‘science’. Without any evidence whatsoever, Kristin Laidre, Ian Stirling and others (Laidre et al. 2018) suggested that polar bears ‘likely’ survived low-ice levels during the Eemian Interglacial and other warm periods by scavenging carcasses of dead whales during the ice-free season – and then used this baseless premise to advance their advocacy opinion that polar bear survival in the future is doomed because of man-made climate change. 

Of course, the media ignored the groundless nature of the original premise and presented something that might have occurred in the past as something that definitely happened – see herehere, and here. In other words, they sold the general public a lie by suggesting a guess made by biologists was a scientifically verified fact.

Bottom line: Presenting speculation informed by science as fiction is an appropriate way to explore intriguing scientific questions but passing off such conjecture as evidence-based science is dishonest and risks eroding public trust in science, especially when it’s used to advance an agenda.

REFERENCES

Laidre, K.L., Stirling, I., Estes, J.A., Kochnev, A. and Roberts,J. 2018. Historical and potential future importance of large whales as food for polar bears. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment doi:10.1002/fee.1963

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December 8, 2020 at 12:15PM

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