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The Inconsistent Ethics of Whaling Research

It has been almost forty years since the International Whaling Commission voted for an indefinite pause in commercial whaling. And yet, whaling continues - albeit at a much reduced rate. Until recently, much of this ongoing commercial whaling was being disguised as scientific research, which gave rise to some thorny ethical issues for scientists. If whales are being killed anyway, should they take advantage of the opportunity to study them? Or does participating in such studies increase the likelihood of the whales being killed? And who should regulate such issues? I wrote a piece for Hakai Magazine - my first piece for a fantastic publication, for which I have long wanted to write - based on a paper by Vassili Papastavrou, Conor Ryan, and Peter Sand - that delved into this thicket of questions.

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Of Nobel Prizes and Paris Agreements

It has been an eventful year in climate science. It feels as if the deniers have been by and large relegated once more to the shadows, at least for now. The ever clearer linkages between climate change and extreme weather events appear to have helped extinguish whtever doubts may remain among all ecept the most paranoid members of the right-wing fever swamps.


Earlier this month, climate science received the sine qua non of imprimaturs when a pair of climate modellers were among three men to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics. In response, I wrote a piece on the science of climate modelling for National Geographic.


Slowly but surely - with an emphasis on the surely - governments are starting to take action. Next months, the representatives of 192 nations will gather in Glasgow for the latest meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, at which they will present new targets under the Paris Agreement. I wrote about which countries are setting and meeting strong targets, and which are not, also for NatGeo.

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Lonely Whale Redux, Redux

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

I first wrote about the loneliest whale in the world many years ago now for Discovery News/Seeker (RIP), and then again for a cover story for the Washington Post Magazine in 2017. And now that a long-gestated documentary has been been completed and released, I've returned to the story I just can't quit, this time for The Guardian.

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Few expeditions can ever have launched with a more appropriately-monikered ship than Endurance, the name of the vessel that took Ernest Shackleton's Trans-Antarctic Expedition members south to the frozen continent in 1914. The expedition has become the definiton of survival against all odds, as Shackleton's men somehow made it through an ordeal that began with the ship being trapped in and then crushed by the ice, leaving them adrift on a floe thousands of miles from help. My most recent retelling of the story appeared last week on the History Channel website; check it out here.

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New Book Contract

Very excited to have signed a contract with Island Press for a book I've long wanted to write: on the past, present, and future of Arctic sea ice; and the search for, squabbles over, and potential of, the pathways that are opening through it in a warming world. It will include travelogues from some of my Arctic journeys, including in the Northwest Passage and to the North Pole, and will be a blend of history, geography, science, and geopolitics. Fun for all the family. ETA: Fall 2022

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In a way that can rarely if ever be said to be the case for teams in major sports in the United States, Liverpool Football Club and the City of Liverpool have grown, risen and fallen almost as one. Liverpool the club began to hit its stride in the mid-1960s, when of course Liverpool the city became one of the cultural centers of the world. In the 1970s and the 1980s, Liverpool the club won everything – between 1973 and 1990, they only once failed to finish first or second in the league, and in that period they became European champions four times too. And there was a period in the 1980s when if Liverpool didn't win the league, their local rivals Everton did. And the sport and those teams meant so much to the people of that city, because for much of that period the city was going through incredibly hard economic times, and in 1981 it was one of the cities across England that erupted in riots. The response of elements of the Thatcher government to the decay and riots of the 1980s was to basically let the city rot, to adopt a policy of "managed decline." But through it all, the football team at least kept winning until it didn't, and its demise roughly coincided with the darkest day in its history: in 1989, 96 fans were crushed to death at a game at Hillsborough in Sheffield, and the Thatcher government, the Murdoch press and the police all blamed them for it, accusing the living of pickpocketing and urinating on the dead and of mob behavior that resulted in the deaths. It took more than 25 years of struggle before there was an official acknowledgment that that was all lies, and that in fact the deaths were a result of horrendously bad policing and crowd control and that all 96 had been unlawfully killed. But as the 1989 tragedy was shortly followed by the team's fall from the top, so that verdict, that redemption, coincided with the return of Liverpool to glory under its new manager, Jurgen Klopp. An avowedly socialist city and a team whose slogan and ethos is You'll Never Walk Alone embraced a liberal, working class manager whose team embodied the collectivist spirit of its fan base: not one player on this Liverpool squad was a superstar when they joined, but they all are now. Last year, they juuuuuuust lose the league title by one point, but then became European champions and then this year they have been dominant, ending 30 years of hurt to become Pemier League champions with seven games to spare.


I am not from Liverpool, but I became a Liverpool fan when I was about seven or eight, in the mid-1970s. It was easy enough to be a Liverpool fan then: lots of my friends at school were, as often is the case with teams that are sweeping all before them. But there was another reason for me: because we had little to no live match coverage then, we were reliant on the weekend highlights package shows, and because liverpool won a lot, they were on thise shows a lot. And I particulary loved watching their star striker, Kenny Dalglish. He becae my favorite player; ergo, Liverpool were my favorite club. I drifted away shortly after Hillsborough, partly because I lost the heart for it and partly because I left England the next month, never to return to live. But I became re-invested a little over 10 years later and my obsession has renewed and intesified since.


Because of the team's history, the fans' sense of otherness and uniqueness, and because of its failures and tragedies over the last 30 years, fans of other teams often continue to regard fans of Liverpool with particular derision and disdain. But that makes this record-breaking season all the sweeter. Everybody thinks their sports team is the best, but right now only Liverpool Football Club is champion of the most popular sports league in the world

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No More Whaling in Iceland?

When I began my environmental career as a youngster in the mid-to-late 1980s, there were effectively three nations still conducting commercial whaling: Japan, Norway, and Iceland. Japan has continued whaling consistently since, but Iceland has dipped in and out. There simply isn't much of a market for whale meat in the small Nordic nation, and the hunting of fin whales in particular was largely driven by the caprice of just one man. Now, the country's two whaling operations - for fins and for minke whales - have announced there will be no operations this year, for the second year running; for minke whaling, that means an end for good, and there is good reason to believe it means the same for fin whaling too. The primary two reasons: a closing of the market in Japan, where whalemeat is also far from popular; and a turning of the tide in Iceland itself. Whalewatching, not whaling, is now ascendant, and it was collective action by the country's whalewatching operators - turing the minke whale hunting area into a whale sanctuary - that did for the minke whale fleet. I detailed the situation in this piece for National Geographic. The development comes a year after Japan's whalers withdrew from the Antarctic and pelagic North Pacific and retrenched to their own waters, likely a precursor to their own ultimate withdrawal. Slowly but surely ...

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New England Aquarium

I'm very excited to begin work this coming week on a new project. I've been commissioned to write a book for the New England Aquarium, about its extensive and invaluable conservation work - on right whales, sea turtles, fisheries, coral reefs, and so many other areas - over the 50 years since its foundation. I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity to work on this project, and to work with such a fantastic team of people. It will be intense: there's a lot to be written and not a lot of time in which to write it. But it should be fun, and worthwhile.

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Last week, my friend and mentor, Sidney Holt was laid to rest in the village of Paciano, Umbria, Italy. He was 93, and had passed away on December 22. 


There are so many things to say about Sidney: that he was a pioneer of fisheries management, that he was one of the first scientists to urge the International Whaling Commission to drastically reduce commercial whaling, that he was a key driving force behind the 1982 IWC commercial whaling moratorium and the 1994 Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, among so many other things.


But there was so much more. Sidney was an inspiration. His intellect remained fierce, and his knowledge broad and deep, until the end, and he loved to share both - whether asked to or not. (All of us who worked with him have memories of being caught up in the dreaded Holt mass email chain, or receiving unsolicited criticism of published works that invariably began along the lines of: "Enjoyed your piece on X. But ... " and continued on for multiple paragraphs or even pages. In later life, as his vision failed him, he continued sending those correctives, except that now they were largely misspelled simply because he couldn't quite see what he was writing.)


Put simply, Sidney was a damn rock star, even to the end. He must have been about 85 when I was with him at a conference in Boston and a young grad student haltingly approached him and asked if he would sign her copy of his landmark 1957 treatise on fisheries management. A year or two later, he was holding forth in London's Fishmongers Hall on the characteristics of the sigmoid curve.


When I was a cub wannabe whale-saver in 1985, I was immensely honored when Sidney, in response to my request for information on whaling, sent me offprints of his most recent articles. In 1987, when Sean Whyte and I founded the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, his very public support was not only of immense value, it affixed to us an imprimatur of authority we would not otherwise have earned.


Sidney could be an irascible old sod, but he was at heart profoundly kind and gentle. He would dismissively refer to me as "the Irishman," (sometimes "that bloody Irishman") but with a twinkle in his eye. It always made me proud when he asked me to work with him on something, and nothing made me more so than, thanks to diligence of Patrick Ramage and Leslie Busby, helping shape his memoirs into a printed product. We were working on a new version when he passed; I deeply regret we could not finish it in time, but as Leslie says, "what matters is that we have his remarkable story to share, I think as a posthumous tribute it will be remarkable and appreciated by so many."


So, yes: scientist, conservationist, inspiration, mentor, rock star - Sidney was all these things. But to me he was one thing above all others: he was my friend. And I have never in my life been more proud to be able to say that of anybody.


(Here is a lovely obituary by Paul Brown in The Guardian.)

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New Book Proposal, Day One

Every marathon begins with a single step. Time for a new project ...

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